Rep. Ron Paul, the 75-year-old stubborn uncle of the Republican Party, is ready to go again, with his third campaign for President of the United States. He announced an exploratory committee Tuesday afternoon in Iowa, with an eye towards kicking off an official 2012 campaign for President in mid-May. Once again, he plans to be on stage at the first GOP primary debate, this year taking place May 5 in South Carolina, to offer rather un-Republican positions on foreign policy, drug legalization and returning the U.S. dollar to the gold standard.
To hear his people tell it, this is Paul’s moment. “Price inflation and the weakening of the dollar is what Ron has been worrying about for the last 40 years of his political life,” says Jesse Benton, who worked as Paul’s press secretary in 2007, married Paul’s granddaughter in 2008, managed Rand Paul’s 2010 Senate campaign, and is in line to chair Ron’s 2012 effort. “Ron Paul is to be taken very seriously this time.” But should he? In short: yes.
That’s not to say Paul has much of a shot at winning the nomination. Many of his core beliefs remain anathema to the GOP rank and file, with his talk of “world empire” or his support of the Personal Use of Marijuana By Responsible Adults Act. In 2008, a year when expectations were blown away, Paul won exactly 1% of Republican delegates, and was denied an opportunity to speak at the national convention.
But Paul does not operate like other candidates, and need not be judged like them. He is less a leader than a symbol, the eye of an ever-widening hurricane of libertarian discontent that has seized the imagination of young people, fiscal conservatives and others across the county. It was Paul supporters, after all, who began to hold tea parties long before anyone knew what the modern Tea Party was. It was Paul supporters who pushed Congress to pass a bill to force the Federal Reserve to open its books, a once-unthinkable invasion of the Fed’s independence. The Paul-effect, in short, is felt far beyond the ballot box.
In 2008, Paul was a phenomenal success, raising more than $34 million, founding a non-profit activist group, the Campaign for Liberty, and setting the stage for the grassroots revolts that greeted Obama when he came into office. This time around, Benton says the Paul team is looking at actually winning more votes in the early primary states, should Paul decide to pull the trigger on another campaign. The first step, he says, is a focus on early fundraising. “It was great that we raised so much money last time, but so much came in too late to effectively spend it,” Benton explained.
On Dec. 16, 2007, the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, Paul raised $6 million in an online fund raising effort. But with only a couple of weeks left until the Iowa caucuses, there was no way to spend the money fast enough. As a result, Paul ended up buying ad time in states like Idaho, which were irrelevant to the nomination fight. (Paul did win nearly 30,000 votes in Idaho, or 24%.) “Partly because of Ron’s desire, and partly spontaneously, it did become a 50-state campaign,” says Benton.
This time around, Benton suggests, there could be much more focus on early primary states, where Paul is performing solidly in initial polls. And Paul still has access to a loose network of small-dollar campaign donors. An online fund raising push in February raised more than $700,000 for his PAC.
Still, enthusiasm isn’t enough to make 2012 different. Back in the 2008 race, Paul could often be found chuckling at his supporters’ ebullience. “It’s a delightful surprise to see a campaign run like this,” Paul told me, in late 2007, describing all the independent efforts that were happening on his behalf. “You couldn’t have asked for more.”
But Paul had no hand in much of it back then. His supporters literally rented a blimp in his honor without his consent. It all happened too fast for him to control. The question facing him now is whether he can better manage, and channel, the support he is sure to attract, to have an even greater impact.