Jan. 3, 2012. The ballroom of the Des Moines hotel fills faster than anyone expected. Iowa Republicans are still caucusing, but fans of Ron Paul have driven in from Omaha, Rockford, Minneapolis, Topeka, and Pittsburgh, their cars festooned with “Legalize the Constitution” stickers. They hit the cash bars early.
At 8 p.m., the networks release the first scraps from “entrance polls.” Lots of first-time caucusers. Lots and lots of anti-Washington sentiment. Lots and lots of Tea Partiers. The ballroom crowd boos when some cable-news Muppet explains that “some people are saying that a Ron Paul win would mark the end of the Iowa caucuses.” Suddenly they realize why the anchor is saying that: He’s trying to explain why Paul is leading.
At 9 p.m., they call it: “Ron Paul is the winner of the 2012 Iowa caucuses.” The ballroom fills up with confetti and boozy cheers. The 76-year-old candidate takes the stage, joined by the junior senator from Kentucky and the rest of his brood. Those hair-gelled media nabobs will have to report on a new Republican front-runner now.
This could happen. Two weeks before the Iowa caucuses, the Republican wheel of random candidate surges has finally click-clack-clicked over to Ron Paul. A Fox News columnist says it. A CNN columnist says it. The heartless RealClearPolitics polling average says it, even if it’s goosed by an odd, one-day Insider Advantage survey. The gamblers of InTrade, who don’t often move unless they’ve got a preponderance of anecdote and conventional wisdom to work with, are now betting on Paul to win in Iowa.
The groundwork for Paul’s recent surge was laid four years ago. When his campaign sputtered out in 2008—he competed in the final GOP primaries, then had his own “alternative convention” opposite the RNC—Paul set up the Campaign for Liberty and Young Americans for Liberty. Those 501c4 groups were designed as part-time organizations for his idle-hands followers, ways to keep building a movement.
That plan worked. Paul’s group helped his son Rand win a Senate seat. In Iowa, it helped his campaign figure out how and where to set up, and what it needed to do win. When I visited Paul’s Iowa headquarters last week, in its cost-cutting location in the Des Moines suburbs, the power had just gone out. A devoted skeleton crew was working by candlelight; a table of campaign literature introduced the candidate as “a Conservative who lives by Faith” (capital letters in the original), a man who had “delivered more than 4,000 babies” and says “it is God Who gave Us life.” I saw devotion, and I saw a campaign willing to settle on a message that could actually win Iowans, not just make some paleolibertarian point. These guys wanted to win.
How many Republicans will Paul’s camp need to win on Jan. 3? In 2008, Iowa caucus-goers cast 119,188 votes. Paul won 11,841 of them, while Mike Huckabee won by scoring 40,954. How much better do activists expect Paul to do this time? At the 2007 straw poll in Ames, the overhyped trial heat/candidate Darwinizer for the caucuses, Paul won only 1,305 votes, and Huckabee won 2,587. At the 2011 straw poll, Paul won 4,671 votes. If he multiplies his straw poll votes at the same rate he did four years ago, he he wins.
That’s how Ron Paul gets to Jan. 3. On Jan. 4, he would get his headlines, and his supporters would get to watch the media squirm. In fact, that squirming has already begun. On Fox News, Chris Wallace says that caucuses “won’t count” if Paul wins. In Politico, James Hohmann noted in an aside that “Ron Paul’s candidacy might provide some wiggle room for a candidate who scores a close fourth.”
But there’s only so much the political press can do to control a story like this. Paul’s victory would dominate the news. The candidate, already in the high teens in New Hampshire polls, would fly into the state as the best hope to beat Mitt Romney locally. Jon Huntsman would keep playing, but Gingrich, Perry, and whoever else was left would have start pivoting to a South Carolina/Florida strategy. And Paul would find himself targeted, for the first time, by a hostile, tackle-the-front-runner media.
We don’t know what that campaign would look like. Paul is in a curious place—a three-time presidential candidate who has barely been vetted by the media. He’s been the GOP’s proudest anti-war, anti-torture voice for four years. That position has earned him soft interviews with Jay Leno, and countless segments on The Daily Show.
If Paul wins Iowa, that stops. The conservative press, which has been bored but hostile to Paul all year (just see the National Review’s cover story), will remind its readers that Paul wants to legalize prostitution and narcotics, end aid to Israel (as part of a general no-aid-for-anyone policy), and end unconstitutional programs like Medicare and social security. The liberal press will discover that he’s a John Birch Society supporter who for years published lucrative newsletters studded with racist gunk. In 2008, when the media didn’t take him seriously, Paul was able to get past the newsletter story with a soft-gummed Wolf Blitzer interview. (“Certainly didn't sound like the Ron Paul that I've come to know and our viewers have come to know all this time,” said Blitzer.) This was when Paul was on track to lose every primary. It’ll be different if the man wins Iowa.
Maybe all of this would drag Paul down. But would it have to? In 2008, the candidate stuck it out through every primary. In 2012, he’ll have more cash than anyone except Romney or Perry—he just raised $4 million in a weekend moneybomb. His supporters will blow off the scrutiny as just so much crap from the corporate media. (Alex Jones will quibble with this characterization: It’s really the “illuminati” media.) No, Paul will stick in the race. Mitt Romney will get to contrast himself with the new-new-new-new insurgent. In that case, the GOP base and donor class will have the easiest pick-a-door choice it’s ever had. Do you go with the guy from Massachusetts who’s not all that convincing of a Reagan clone, or do you go with the guy who wants legal heroin and a pissed-off Benjamin Netanyahu?
That’s a dream scenario for Team Romney. When I asked the candidate’s adviser Stuart Stevens about how Ron Paul factored into their plans, he kicked his own campaign’s expectations through the floor. “Ron Paul could win Iowa,” he said. This is not how worried people talk. Let’s see how they sound on Jan. 4.