June 3rd, 2007
Cross-posted on techPresident.
By many accounts, Republican candidate Ron Paul has become an online political phenomenon: despite polling in the low single digits nationally, as of today he has more Facebook supporters than McCain, more MySpace friends than Romney, more YouTube views than Hillary Clinton and more Meetups planned than any other candidate.
Though many observers have been fascinated by his apparent rise, it really shouldn’t come as a surprise: his positions and his background make him a perfect Web candidate. But, they’ll also ultimately doom his candidacy. Here’s why he’s an online natural:
1. The Web Loves Libertarians
Besides being a multi-term congressmember from The Great State of Texas, Ron Paul was also the 1988 Libertarian candidate for president, and people with Libertarian ideas have long found a home online. The no-rules and no-authorities nature of the technology world and the Internet is a natural fit for the politically independent, and early conservative websites such as Free Republic bubbled with Libertarian-influenced opinions. By the late 90s, when I was helping to put together a massive index of political websites for the now-defunct PoliticalInformation.com, Libertarian sites, independent or party-associated, were extremely active and seemed to outnumber sites associated with the more traditional political parties and their issues.
Though the rise of political blogs and the netroots in this decade has diluted the place of Libertarians online, even today the audiences of tech-heavy sites such as Slashdot and Digg show a fondness for civil liberties and anti-authoritarian ideas: one sign of Paul’s rise has been the large number of votes for stories about him on Digg. Though Libertarians are a small minority of the Republican electorate, they can make a disproportionate amount of noise online.
2. The Other Candidates are a Disappointment
It’s no secret that many Republicans are seriously unhappy with their choices for president during this election cycle. Rudy Giuliani is still the front-runner in the polls, but that whole abortion rights/gay friendly/get-nuzzled-by-Donald Trump-while-wearing-a-dress thing is likely to put a solid cap on the number of primary votes he’ll get. The alternatives? Romney’s a robot, the bloom is long off McCain and the other candidates have the air of also-rans about them. Fred Thompson has star quality, but he’s still not formally in the race, is also relatively unproven before a national audience (not counting Law and Order and Die Hard 2 fans), and may be a bit lazy. So, with none of the others sucking the air out of the room, space exists for a less-conventional candidate to get attention.
3. A Pre-Existing Base of Support
Paul’s congressional service and his 1988 presidential race are a secret weapon: though little-known outside of Congress and Texas politics, he’s a Libertarian senior statesman. In 1988, he got fewer than half a million votes across the country, but the race exposed him to a national network of donors and supporters who haven’t forsaken him. In his 1996 congressional campaign against “Lefty” Morris in Texas, despite being out of elected office for over a decade, Paul tapped supporters for over $1 million. According to his Wikipedia page (quoted as of June 2, 2007), in that year:
He raised more money than Morris, with the help of his national network of donors: $1.2 million to Morris’ $472,153. Ken Bryan, a Democratic consultant to some of Paul’s opponents, has said, “He has one of the largest contributor bases in Congress, outside of the leadership.” Most of Paul’s contributions are given in small amounts by individuals. That year, he had the third-highest amount of individual contributions of any House member, behind Speaker Newt Gingrich and Bob Dornan.
So, despite his lack of a national profile, among the Libertarian wing of the Republican electorate, he’s both known and liked. The reason why brings us to the last point: he’s a true purist, and we all know that…
4. The Web Loves a Purist
The real business of politics is messy: it always involves compromise, often requires tactical retreat and generally makes people settle for less than they really want. But since the public instinctively dislikes this reality, voters are often drawn to candidates who’ll claim to be standing above the fray and speaking truth — remember the Straight Talk Express? The birth of the Web gave political purists a high podium to speak from, and online political activists are particularly intolerant of the ugly realities of the daily work of politics. The Daily Kos’s of this world are not exactly given to compromise.
Ron Paul, like most Libertarian-minded folks I’ve met over the years, is a natural political purist — horse-trading for votes is anathema to him. Again according to Wikipedia, Texas Monthly magazine has described him as “both deeply principled and wholly uncompromised,” and his was often one of only two or three Republican “no” votes in Congress against bills that he regarded as anti-Constitution or as wasteful spending. In an online world where we can speak our opinions and act on our convictions without having to consider the practical difficulties of getting political work done, Paul fits right in.
The War and More
Of course, there’s more to his apparent online support than these four factors. For starters, Micah Sifry has pointed to his opposition to the Iraq war, which is consistent with Libertarian disapproval of foreign entanglements. On a less philosophical note, a commenter on Micah’s recent story about Paul also pointed out that the candidate’s website provides so few opportunities for voter involvement that supporters are driven to work for him on their own rather than through his campaign. Regardless of why his support seems strong online…
He’s Still Doomed
Like Howard Dean, Paul Tsongas, Jerry Brown, Ralph Nader, Steve Forbes, Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer, Ron Paul will not be the next President of the United States, and for a lot of the same reasons. Purist candidates attract purist voters, but most of the electorate would prefer not to go down with the ship (Goldwater in ’64!). While they may flirt with a purist, in the end they’ll vote for the candidate who most closely matches their views WHILE ALSO having a good chance of winning. Running for president gives a niche candidate a powerful platform for putting out opinions (hello, Kucinich), but they tend to be in niches in the first place for a reason. I don’t know whom the Republicans will select as their ’08 standard-bearer, but I know who it won’t be: Ron Paul.
Inspired by an article on Ron Paul in this week’s Politics Online Weekly Politicker e-newsletter.