It’s probably time to stop lumping Ron Paul in with Mike Gravel, Dennis Kucinich, Duncan Hunter and all of the other self-deluded no-shots in the 2008 presidential race.
Because money talks, and the quirky 72-year-old Texas Congressman just raised a ton of it—more than $5 million between July and September, to be exact. He now has $5.3 million on hand, and his campaign, which is fueled by a devoted and growing internet army not unlike the one Howard Dean built four years ago, wants to raise another $12 million before the year is out.
That goal would have been laughed at just a few months ago, but now the cynics are keeping their mouths shut.
Granted, next to Hillary Clinton’s $22 million third quarter, Dr. Paul’s take represents scraps. But not so when you compare his money to his fellow Republicans, who have struggled mightily to extract donations from a deflated and dejected G.O.P. base.
Mitt Romney, a venture capitalist and the closest thing to a fund-raising machine on the Republican side, took in about $10 million in the third quarter (although he supplemented that with $6 million from his own vast fortune). Fred Thompson, whose candidacy was supposedly demanded by that restless party base, may have raised $8 million. John McCain took in $5 million – supposedly a triumph for his floundering campaign. And Mike Huckabee, one of the few candidates to jar G.O.P. audiences from their comatose state during debates, only grabbed $1 million. Financially, Dr. Paul is now one of the big boys in the Republican race.
Moreover, as his campaign gleefully pointed out Wednesday, he is the only Republican candidate whose fundraising is gathering momentum. While Rudy Giuliani, Mr. Romney and Mr. McCain all raised substantially less in the third quarter than in the second quarter, Dr. Paul’s tally jumped by 114 percent over the last three months. The simplest explanation is that the big-name candidates relied on big-dollar donors who maxed out early, while Dr. Paul has essentially grown the donor pie, taking in small checks from a funky array of supporters attracted by his unique, defiant message. Traditional Republican donors, demoralized by their candidates and ’08 prospects, are sitting on their hands. That hurts the front-runners, but not Dr. Paul, whose outreach to brand new donors is only accelerating.
Now, the (five) million dollar question: Can Dr. Paul match his fund-raising numbers with actual poll numbers?
To date, the answer has been no. He’s certainly won more free media attention this year than anyone expected him to, and much more than the other “fringe” candidates (like Duncan Hunter) have received. That has undoubtedly helped fuel his fund-raising, but he’s remained an asterisk in national and key early state surveys. Moreover, the Paul forces seemed to pour everything they had into August’s Iowa straw poll. Their work netted a fifth-place showing–not exactly bad, but hardly a breakthrough, especially since all but one of the front-runners skipped the event entirely.
It’s enough to raise the question of whether the Paul phenomenon is a mirage, with a hyper-motivated band of supporters creating a tempting but misleading image of broad support. This has happened before, like in 2000, when Ralph Nader found himself attracting crowds of 15,000 people who paid money to hear him speak, compared to the several hundred who might show up at the free events for George W. Bush and Al Gore. What we learned, though, is that Mr. Nader’s crowds were a reflection of the devotion of his supporters. He ended up with less than three percent of the vote; it was as if every person who ended up voting for him attended one of his rallies at some point.
But with his newfound cash, Dr. Paul, unlike Mr. Nader in 2000, will have the money to be a major player on the airwaves in the early primary and caucus states, particularly if, as it now appears likely, the contributions roll in at an even quicker pace for the rest of this year. Plus, recent polls in Iowa and New Hampshire actually have detected some slight movement toward Dr. Paul. The two most recent New Hampshire polls placed him at 3 percent, his best showing of the year there, and an Iowa survey last week found the same. Considering that he spent most of the campaign not even registering in polls, this does represent progress.
Dr. Paul’s best bet might be to focus on New Hampshire, where the anti-war libertarian philosophy that sets him apart from his fellow candidates actually puts him in step with a good chunk of the state’s G.O.P. electorate and Republican-leaning independents. New Hampshire is also ground zero for the “Free State Project,” in which a group of Libertarians began moving to the state several years ago in an effort to bend its politics toward their ideology. There may not be many of them, but they are all natural Paul supporters. More to the point, the primary electorate in New Hampshire is eminently reachable: The state is geographically compact, it has one network television affiliate, and the voters are highly engaged and willing to embrace unlikely candidates and ideas. Moreover, the universe of G.O.P. primary voters figures to be particularly small next year, with independents—free in New Hampshire to vote in either party’s primary—likely flocking to the Democratic contest. In a splintered Republican field, a well-funded Dr. Paul could make noise.
2008 really is the perfect time for Dr. Paul’s candidacy. There is no true dominant front-runner and no urgency by the party’s establishment forces to corral their forces around one particular candidate. The depressed state of the G.O.P. plays perfectly into the hands of someone who can mobilize forces outside of those traditional Republican networks.
The idea of Dr. Paul actually winning the Republican nomination is still a zany one. But here we are just three months before the first votes are cast, and the prospect of a top-three finish in New Hampshire is seeming less crazy by the day.