It’s become understandably fashionable to liken the Ron Paul phenomenon to the outbreak of Howard Dean-mania that swept the Democratic grassroots four years ago.
Besides the superficial similarities—both men are physicians and both have last names that could just as easily be first names—there’s the trajectory of their White House efforts: Both began as quirky, unknown and unfunded outsiders, only to connect with a fervent grassroots army that no one previously knew was there.
Dr. Dean’s breakthrough moment came at the height of what his campaign dubbed “the Sleepless Summer,” the end of July 2003. He crisscrossed the country, hopping from one mega-rally to the next, landed on the covers of the major news magazines, emerged as a must-book talk show guest, and stunned everyone by using the internet to raise more money—mostly in small donations—than any of the supposed Democratic front-runners.
Similarly, Dr. Paul has become the breakout sensation of an otherwise listless Republican field. He’s become one of the most searched names on the internet, his rallies pulse with the same youthful electricity that Dr. Dean’s once did, and last week Dr. Paul even found himself on Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” couch. Oh, and there’s also the $4 million his campaign raised in 24 hours this week—a single-day internet record that brought Dr. Paul, whose $5 million take for the third quarter was surprising enough, close to his goal of adding $12 million to his coffers by the end of the year.
But that may be where the common ground stops.
When Dr. Dean’s big rallies and bigger fund-raising numbers finally caught the media’s attention four years ago, something else quickly fell into place: His poll numbers. In the first week of August 2003, Dr. Dean, who hadn’t even registered in poll at the start of that year, took the lead in the national horserace for the first time, edging ahead of Joe Lieberman, 16 to 15 percent. (John Kerry, the eventual nominee, had 11 percent). Around that same time, Dr. Dean also powered into the lead in New Hampshire (a 28 to 21 percent advantage over Mr. Kerry in the first week of August) and Iowa too. By the time his surge peaked toward the end of 2003, Dr. Dean was doubling up the nearest competition in national and early state surveys, the clear front-runner in polling, money, and media buzz.
It has taken Dr. Paul, who was initially written off by the press as more of a flake than Dr. Dean ever was, a little longer to win the media’s attention. But if his campaign represented the G.O.P.’s Dean equivalent, it would be evident in the polls by now.
Gallup—the same polling outfit that showed Dr. Dean taking the lead in August 2003—placed Dr. Paul’s support at 1 percent in its latest national survey, conducted last weekend. In New Hampshire, where Dr. Paul is now running television ads and where the electorate figures to be unusually sympathetic to his libertarian theories, he has polled at one and two percent in the two most recent surveys, faring no better than Duncan Hunter. The story is the same in Iowa: one percent for Dr. Paul, according to the most recent data.
Dr. Dean attracted a stunning number of individual donors to his campaign, everyday Democrats not recruited by bundlers chipping in 50 bucks here, 20 bucks there. It added up to tens of millions of dollars and was representative of a very broad sentiment—a yearning for a Democrat with backbone—among the party’s grassroots. For every small dollar donor Dr. Dean had, there were probably 10 Democrats who didn’t give him money but who liked his message and style.
This doesn’t seem to be the case with Dr. Paul, even though the volume of small dollar donors he has attracted—more than 36,000 people contributing an average of just over $100 this week alone—is staggering. But instead of representing a bigger and broader movement—one that would register in the polls—Dr. Paul’s donors seem to represent only themselves. It’s as if every member of every niche group with which Dr. Paul’s idiosyncratic message resonates has given him money.