It’s not even worth pretending Ron Paul has any shot at winning the GOP nomination, even if he does manage to pull off a victory in Iowa. As Dave Weigel outlines at Slate, if Paul wins the caucuses it will probably only boost Romney’s chances of wrapping up the nomination.
Because Paul’s such a no-shot, most of his Republican critics are fairly blasé about his steady upward creep in the Iowa polls. But they should consider this nightmare scenario: Paul wins the caucuses. He then uses his heightened visibility – and his substantial cash reserves – to set the stage for a general election third-party run.
If you don’t think he’ll have enough public support to cause serious damage in the general election, you’re fooling yourself. There will be plenty of Republican voters who will be disillusioned enough by Romney’s likely nomination to consider voting third-party, which would severely complicate the GOP’s path to the White House.
Politico reports that this possibility is already causing anxiety in Iowa Republican circles:
The most troubling eventuality that Iowa Republicans are bracing for is that Paul wins the caucuses only to lose the nomination and run as a third-party candidate in November — all but ensuring President Obama is re-elected.
“If we empower somebody who turns around and elects Obama, then that’s a major problem for the caucuses,” said Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa).
Iowa Republicans have reason to be concerned. When Sean Hannity asked Paul, point blank, last week whether he would mount a third-party bid, the candidate said he had “no intention of doing that,” but was careful to keep the door open: “I don’t like absolutes — I don’t like to say: ‘I absolutely will never do such and such,’” Paul added.
Thanks to Republican primary rules that try to discourage exactly this scenario, Paul won’t be able to get on all the state ballots as a third-party candidate. But that may not matter. Paul’s an ideologue first, and the point of his run would be to get his message out to a broad national audience – winning is a secondary concern.
From Paul’s perspective, the time may seem ripe. He’s stated that this will be his final presidential run. And he’s even announced that he won’t run again for the congressional seat he’s held for more than a decade.
Once Republicans reject Paul and choose their nominee, will he cheerfully fade away into retirement and the quieter life of activist politics? Or will Paul – no longer beholden to the Republican Party that has long treated him like a sideshow – seek out third-party vindication at the GOP’s expense?