Thursday, November 29, 2007

Ron Paul, Politics and the Internet in the ’08 Campaign

By Stuart Rothenberg

Thank goodness for Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and his campaign for president.

Single-handedly, the quirky libertarian Republican from Texas has unintentionally exposed the over-hype that accompanies much of the talk about politics and the Internet.

Paul has been doing well in post-debate call-ins and Internet “polls” for months, and his Web site has been scoring more hits than a bong at a Grateful Dead concert. Recently, he received a wave of publicity because of a single day of fundraising, when some 35,000 contributors gave more than $4 million to the Congressman’s presidential bid.

But big-sounding numbers can be deceiving, and politics is more about breadth of support than depth. Ultimately, elections are about winning votes, not Web visitors or even campaign dollars.

Yes, $4 million is a lot of money to raise in a single day. But it pales in comparison to the overall fundraising of Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who didn’t need a one-day fundraising event to get media attention.

Still, let’s give the Texan credit for his fundraising. But what does that mean if he also has no chance of becoming the GOP presidential nominee, or even of winning a single primary contest?

Yes, I know. This statement alone is enough to generate far too many e-mails and telephone calls from Paul supporters accusing me of being anti-democratic and of violating the Constitution. When I wrote months ago in this space that it was time for Paul and other third-tier candidates to be excluded from televised debates, more than a couple of reporters made it clear that although they agreed with my view, they didn’t want to be swamped by angry e-mails and phone calls.

The result is that many in the national media have treated Paul casually. Some media types surely find him interesting, especially given his views on Iraq. And people who cover “new technologies,” including the Internet, have a self-interest to hype Paul’s Web hits and Internet fundraising. But you hear very little about his kooky votes.

Hardly anyone is bothering to talk about his votes against resolutions calling on the government of Vietnam to release political prisoners and on the Arab League to help stop the killing in Darfur. Nor do they note that he said during his 1988 Libertarian bid for president that he would do away with the FBI and CIA, abolish the public schools, eliminate Social Security and all farm subsidies, and withdraw from NATO.

Reporters don’t talk about his views and philosophy because they know he isn’t a credible contender, but at the same time they refer to his fundraising and Web presence as if he’s relevant.

Recently, a reporter for a major national newspaper wrote a piece about former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s movement in the Republican presidential race by comparing him to Paul. (Huckabee’s momentum in Iowa is real, though it is still unclear if he’ll develop into a top-tier hopeful.)

The reporter wrote the following: “[Huckabee’s] campaign saw Web site traffic jump to levels second among Republicans only to that of Mr. Paul, who has a strong base of Internet supporters, forcing it to upgrade its server three times.”

The comparison was interesting but totally meaningless. Yes, Paul gets lots of Web site traffic. And yet, has zero chance of being nominated. Given that, who cares about Paul’s Web traffic (or Huckabee’s, for that matter), unless you are a technology reporter who is personally invested in your beat?

Anyway, I’ll offer a guess as to why Paul is raising all that cash and generating those Web hits. He received 423,000 votes when he ran as the Libertarian Party’s nominee for president in 1988, raising a little more than $2 million. Anyone who knows libertarians knows that they are a committed bunch, certain that the country has lost its way and in need of immediate repair.

I’ll bet that many who voted for and contributed to Paul in the past (he raised more than $2 million for his House races in 1998 and 2000) are investing in his presidential campaign this time, and he almost certainly is drawing support from liberals who connect with his views on the war in Iraq, from frustrated Americans who simply don’t like “the system,” and from some Republicans who are at the libertarian extreme of their party.

Check out Paul’s Web site. He is openly appealing to voters who aren’t registered Republicans by including, on the lower left hand corner of his Web site, a box listing “party affiliation change deadlines.” “You must be registered with the correct party to vote for Ron Paul in closed primaries,” says the site.

Sorry, but you can’t win a Republican presidential nomination by relying on the support of non-Republicans. Nor can you win if you finish fifth in the Iowa straw poll (in which three credible candidates didn’t participate) and third in your home state’s straw poll behind Rep. Duncan Hunter (Calif.).

How can we explain Ron Paul? This is a big country with hundreds of millions of people, some of whom are attracted to quirky, anti-establishment candidates. And some of those people are angry, looking for an outspoken leader and searching for an easy answer to the nation’s problems. But there simply are not all that many of them.

The Internet undoubtedly has made it easier for Paul supporters to connect with the campaign and with each other, and it’s become a terrific way to raise cash for a candidate with emotional followers. But Web chatter, declarations of undying support on Facebook and even surprising fundraising totals don’t make a serious contender out of a candidate from the political fringe. Ultimately, it’s about votes.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on November 27, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.