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The Ron Paul Paradox

BY Micah L. Sifry | Wednesday, December 21 2011

Every four years, the America presidential primary process offers the voters a tempting illusion: anyone can be president. With enough hard work, volunteers, money, and just the right strategy, an outsider or a relative unknown can wow the early states, where all politics is local and hyper-personal, and then take the rest of the nation by surprise. There's just enough truth to this myth that it seemingly self-renews; after all, it worked for Jimmy Carter. And a number of other self-styled outsiders, from Jesse Jackson to Jerry Brown to Howard Dean on the Democratic side, to Patrick Buchanan on the Republican side, have shown that you can indeed ride the myth almost to glory.

Now it looks like it might well be Ron Paul's turn. No less an authority than Nate Silver has written that he's poised to win the Iowa caucus in two weeks by a plurality, and suggested that that win could propel him to an unlikely victory in New Hampshire.

Paul has gotten to this point in large part because of his passionate base online. (Yes, other factors, like the divided Republican field and the politics of the bank bailout and the recession, have also brightened his star.) The internet is Paul's home state, a place where libertarianism has always been rife. It's also literally where his supporters are most likely to meet each other: other than college campuses, Paul doesn't have a natural base to talk to in evangelical churches or country clubs or local chamber of commerce meetings or VFW halls.

Paul's online support base is impressive. In addition to his campaign website, which gets between 200,000 and 300,000 unique visitors a month according to Compete.com, 650,000 likes on his Facebook page, and 138,000 followers to his Twitter feed. According to Patrick Ruffini's "Most Talked About Candidates on Facebook" spreadsheet, right now Paul is at the height of his popularity, with just over 25% of the daily presidential chatter on the site about him.

And that's not even half the story. The unofficial Ron Paul support network is an internet juggernaut. There are 721 Ron Paul Meetup groups with nearly 90,000 members meeting regularly. The DailyPaul, a community blog, gets almost as many unique visitors as the campaign's official site. RonPaul2008dotcom, a YouTube channel run by a supporter, has 116,000 subscribers--three times as many as the Paul campaign's official YouTube channel. And the Ron Paul Forums, another grassroots web site with no official connection to the campaign, is a beehive of activity where hard-core activists do far more than just share daily news items and support each other's online efforts. They also have developed a sophisticated array of field outreach training materials, including detailed guides on how to talk to Christians, seniors, and even pro-war Republicans about why they should support Paul.

And Ron Paul knows how important this huge volunteer base has been to his rise, as this video shows:

Indeed, that support has translated into real growth in the one metric everyone respects in politics, money. Four years ago, Paul had raised $8.3 million by the end of the third fundraising quarter. This cycle, he had already hit $15.4 million by Sept. 30. And while his base of small donors (people giving donations of less than $200 each) has remained significant, he's also grown a larger pool of bigger donors. According to the Campaign Finance Institute, as of the end of the third quarter, he had amassed more than 12,000 itemized contributors (people giving more than $200). That's 5,000 more people than gave to him four years ago. By contrast, Mitt Romney's base of givers shrank compared to four years ago: He now has just 19,700, compared to 29,700 the first time he ran.

But here's the rub. Paul has also gotten to this point by running a much more disciplined campaign than he did in 2007-08. There's no money being wasted on campaign blimps, for example (a $600,000 boondoggle built by supporters anxious to find a way to a media breakthrough). This time around, he went up on the air early in Iowa and New Hampshire with professionally produced TV ads that were far slicker than anything he put out four years ago. Now he's pushing up his Iowa numbers by hitting his Republican rivals hard with more TV ads, another tactic we didn't see in 2007. And he's worked hard to build a well-organized campaign organization on the ground.

Says Republican online strategist Martin Avila, who worked on Paul's 2008 e-campaign, "It's wonderful to see the campaign building early state infrastructure, something 2008 was lacking, focused on winning."

Justine Lam, who was his 2008 e-campaign director, told me, "The 2008 campaign was a very organic, grassroots-driven campaign…the campaign is being run differently this time around."

She adds, "There doesn't seem to be the same amount of excitement, but that could be because there's more of a typical campaigning structure around all activities this time-around because of the lessons learned, the training that was done between the campaigns, and probably various other reasons."

I suspect those reasons include self-discipline. After years of toiling on the margins, a lot of Ron Paul fans — the so-called "Paulbots" — can probably taste it; their guy is about to break through!

And that's when the paradox of net-powered campaigning may well kick in. We all know the Internet hyper-empowers small groups of people, enabling them to do much more than in the past. But it also super-exposes them. And while Paul himself may be a more disciplined campaigner, able to shape his message into palatable terms for a somewhat broader audience than he did last time around, he's about to be tested in much harsher ways as the mainstream media scrambles to make up for its failure to take him seriously until now. He certainly has a lot of baggage to explain.

The same pressure is going to hit his online base. And if you've ever tangled with a "Paulbot," you know his or her commitment to Paul is often matched by an intense sense of superiority. (Just look at some of the comments on Sarah Lai Stirland's recent piece about the battle within Reddit between Paul supporters and critics. Will Paul supporters' defense of the right to consume "raw milk" really help convince people to vote for their candidate?) Passion can power a campaign, but self-righteousness can also cripple it. In the coming days, as Paul's popularity rises, his online base is going to be tested as much as he will.