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Exaggerating the Paul Effect

After strong showings in both Iowa and New Hampshire, Ron Paul is starting to get some respect from the media, even if it is grudging. But while no one, not even Paul himself, seems to believe the libertarian extremist is any threat to steal the Republican nomination from Mitt Romney, there is growing sentiment that his appeal to young voters, Democrats and independents will be a problem for the GOP frontrunner in the coming months as well as the general election.

While Paul has tapped into some Tea Party support outside of his own constituency with his rigid stance against virtually all government spending, the idea that he could sabotage Romney with an unlikely third party run or that his supporters could cost the Republicans the election in November is, at best, an exaggeration. Paul’s top three finishes in the first two states to hold primaries were the result of him bring bringing out to the polls voters who are attracted to political outliers and protest candidates. Though any group, no matter how small, may prove decisive in a close election, Romney’s presidential hopes will not rest on the affections of youngsters who want to legalize pot or those who like Paul’s isolationist foreign policy. Even more to the point, as the primary season advances and Paul’s results start to decline, talk of his influence on the election will fade.

One factor that will quickly diminish Paul’s prominence is that most of the rest of the primaries will not be open to the independents and Democrats whose votes inflated the Texas congressman’s totals. Polls in South Carolina and Florida — the next two states to hold primaries — show Paul dropping out of the top tier of GOP contenders. If Paul’s supporters at his New Hampshire headquarters were acting as if they won the Super Bowl last night, it was because for them it was. His distant second place finish there was as good as it’s going to get for him.

Paul doubled the votes he received in both Iowa and New Hampshire in 2008, and that’s an indication his movement has gained some traction. But it will soon be apparent it is just as marginal in terms of Republican sentiment in 2012 as it was four years ago. The idea that Romney could or should pander to Paul’s supporters is bad politics as well as virtually impossible. The common ground between this group and the rest of the GOP is too narrow to allow it.

One only had to listen to his lengthy rant last night to understand that a group led by a man who obsesses about the Federal Reserve and views the United States as the moral equivalent of the Soviet Union is not someone who can or should be allowed to influence the Republican platform or party policy in any way. Romney has been careful to treat Paul with respect. Perhaps too careful for my taste, though it is no more cynical than the way Democrats have treated their outliers and extremists in the past.

Some of those Republicans who voted for Paul as a protest vote will probably stay loyal to the party in November because they despise Barack Obama. But undoubtedly many of Paul’s independents and Democrats will stay home or vote for Obama, as they did four years ago. If Paul runs on his own (and given his concern for his son’s future in the GOP I doubt that will happen), I think he’ll take as many if not more votes from Obama than the Republican candidate.

Romney can use all the help he can get this year, but his path to victory in November will be by attracting centrist independents and Democrats, not voters who are primarily interested in legalizing drugs or opposing American foreign deployments. Though it would be wrong to completely ignore Paul, once his primary vote totals start dropping down to single digits, it isn’t likely many will still be saying much about him.


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