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Ron Paul and the Ghost of Ross Perot

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, November 6 2007

I'm on the record from May 24 as saying that "Ron Paul is to the Republicans of 2008 as Howard Dean was to the Democrats of 2004," and I'll stand by that analogy for two reasons. First, like Dean, Paul is attracting an unusual level of grass-roots support because he doesn't mince words and, on the #1 issue of the day, the Iraq War, he is speaking out in opposition like no other presidential candidate in his political party. And second, like Dean, Paul is running a loosely-controlled campaign that freely shares attention with its base, and thus benefits from all kinds of self-organizing energies from below. Like Dean, Paul is now finally being taken seriously as a result of a huge fundraising score, but the evidence of the size and passion of his base--from his name being at the top of Digg and Technorati for months to his high web traffic and large Meetup numbers--have been there for all to see for quite some time.

But I'm struck by another analogy, to another Texas maverick with the same initials, Ross Perot. Like Perot, Paul is an ornery truth-teller with a consistent world-view born of his own self-education. Like Perot, Paul cares little what the chattering class thinks of him. Like Perot, Paul is talking about one of those "crazy aunt in the attic" issues--only for Paul the issue is American empire and how being an empire has corrupted the country, when for Perot it was the federal deficit. (Both men are also opponents of free trade deals like NAFTA.) Like Perot, Paul is drawing support from an odd mix of idealistic young people who are probably mostly independents, unhappy older Republicans, and conspiracy theorists and kooks. And like Perot, Paul is drawing his most intense support from the West and the Northeast, and is weakest in the South. (Hat tip to Armand for noticing the correlation.) I'm willing to bet that a disproportionate of Paul supporters voted for Perot in 1992, if they were old enough back then.

Of course, the analogy isn't perfect. Perot was pro-choice; Paul, despite his libertarianism, is pro-life (or, is such a constitutional literalist that he wants the issue decided by the states). So, unlike Perot, Paul isn't going to get many votes from the liberal side of the aisle should he break off from the GOP and go the third-party route. Perot had some serious ideas about saving American jobs and industrial policy; Paul seems to think we can act like most of the 20th century didn't happen and we can roll the clock back to the days before the IRS and the Federal Reserve existed. And while Perot's movement was, for a brief period, a people-powered insurgency, that lasted only as long as it took for Perot's wallet and his minions, drawn from the military, to impose their control, so far Paul's movement seems to be something very organic.

All that said, Paul's people are demonstrating that whether you organize around a maverick independent billionaire or a maverick libertarian Republican, a concerted mass of people who have figured out how to combine and multiply their voices online can force their way onto the national stage. With their November 5th uprising, the Paulites have pulled off, as Markos Moulitsas of DailyKos just wrote, the "single biggest example of people-power this cycle." (They may also have just taught lots of third-party advocates a lesson in how you can effectively use the quasi-open nature of the major parties' presidential nominating process to open up the debate).

Ron Paul's movement, or mini-movement, is still smaller in absolute terms than Howard Dean or Ross Perot's movements at their height. At best, Paul has maybe a few hundred thousand email addresses (I haven't seen a figure anywhere) and maybe, maybe, 60,000 individual contributors. Dean had 600,000+ email addresses and probably 100,000 individual contributors by the end. Perot got 19 million votes, and, equally significant in my view, drew more than 2 million dues-paying members into his post-election grass-roots organization United We Stand America.

But it's early and Ron Paul is clearly far from the peak of whatever trajectory he is on. It's hard to see how he can win the Republican nomination; it's also hard to see him and his movement slink away from the scene once that hard truth sinks in. Paul has already said that he will not support the Republican nominee if the candidate is in favor of continuing the war in Iraq. But his spokesman Jesse Benton says Paul won't go third-party because the ballot access barriers are too hard (and, do note that Paul is also still running for re-election to Congress from Texas). But the Libertarian Party is very good at getting their candidates on the ballot, and Paul has run on their line before.

Whatever happens, it looks to me as though Paul is in the internet's sweet spot for politics. That is, he is an remark-able candidate with a clear message that the mainstream media has been ignoring. The net reacts to censorship by routing around it; in the case of politics, the net reacts to mainstream silence or disrespect by creating or using new media systems to spread a message that people find compelling. The 2008 election just got a whole lot more interesting.