US Rep. Ron Paul’s campaign to become the Republican party’s candidate for president in next year’s election has caused quite a buzz on the Internet. Paul is the number one presidential nominee on the Google search engine as well as on sites like YouTube and MeetUp.
This buzz, which was dismissed as “an Internet thing” by many a self-proclaimed political analyst, now seems to be spreading to the mainstream media. Not only local newspapers and regional tv stations report on Paul’s campaign, the national networks seem less unwilling and hostile to cover the success of Paul. Especially Paul’s recent report of having more cash on hand than so-called top runner John McCain (who is now more likely to quit the race than lead it).
Paul’s campaign has so far do doubt been extremely successful, he’s caused an enormous buzz compared to his fellow power-seekers, at least judging from the comparatively infinitesimal amount of money spent. His message of “constitutionalism” sticks out as a radical and new approach in the otherwise solidly “big statism” republican line-up. This revived “old rightism” of Paul’s (small government, free economy conservatism) obviously has a lot of followers in the party at the grassroot level. These grassroots, one would presume, probably consist mostly of the “old folk” (in age or mindset) of the Goldwater-Reagan style GOP, who are utterly tired of the neo-con rhetoric and policies, and the more radical historically oriented nationalist, i.e., constitution-loving, republican youth.
A problem for Paul’s campaign that has been widely discussed is the almost classic problem of moving from the digital to the real world. Internet-based businesses have rather unsuccessfully tried to overcome this problem since the dawn of Internet; being the number one supplier of goods or services on the “net” does not necessarily mean profits, even though the number of people connected to the Internet increases rapidly. So how do you take the step from “net” to “nature”?
The most common, and least impressive, means to do this is through using regular means of advertising: billboards, newspaper and magazine ads, tv commercials. This is where most Internet-based businesses fail: their business might be perfectly fit for the fast-moving low-cost digitally based market, but their margins are way too narrow to support costs of non-Internet marketing.
Ron Paul might already have overcome this problem without falling into the same “trap” as for-profit businesses (even though his campaign seems to have enough funds for advertising). The followers of the campaign are plenty and they seem quite eager to help. Reports show that a lot of people all around the nation spontaneously create signs and buy advertising space on billboards.
This spontaneous and decentralized type of “Hayekian” campaigning might be the key to a successful campaign, spreading the message far more effective than any standard presidential campaign. Also, since the number of whole-hearted Paul supporters tend to increase as he gets his message “out there” and people get to know of his existence, a reasonable guess is that this spontaneous grassroots “uprising” will increase in numbers and activity both as the number of supporters increase and the closer we get to the first primaries.
It may also, however, mean that literally millions of supporters will flee the remainder of the campaign following failure to reach a top position in Iowa January 14. There are both risks and opportunities with a large grassroots movement such as Paul’s; the grassroots are uncontrollable and unpredictable. Most presidential nominees, no doubt, would call the spontaneous organization of the Paul campaign “out of hand” or “chaotic.” Paul, however, as a free-market advocate, likely understands the true power of human action from the individual up (rather than the opposite and normal political approach: from the powerful down).
The crux of the campaign is not to find and establish sufficient support – it already exists and is growing literally on a daily basis – but to generate votes from it. As is the case today, it seems Paul’s support is based in at least three categories:
- different kinds of radicals who are not members of the GOP (but, rather, members of other parties, such as the Libertarian Party, the Constitution Party, the Green Party, etc.),
- since long passive “old style” republicans, and
- radical home-made republican constitutionalist theorists who regularly “meet” more nicknames on the Internet than friends in real life.
The first category of supporters cannot affect the outcome of the primaries, unless “reaching out” to new voters groups becomes a major issue. This category is, in this sense, already lost. These people might tip a presidential election over to a republican win over the democrats, but they are not necessarily a benefit in the primaries.
The second category of supporters could be a sleeper category, since they are members of the party and could, if they have nurtured and kept alive their networks of “friends” in the party, make a change. But the people in this category might not vote in the primaries: they are either old party folk who have lost their belief in both the party and the political system, or they are youngsters who have yet to gain real influence (but probably won’t because of their non-neocon convictions).
These people don’t vote in the primaries and probably haven’t since Reagan’s or Goldwater’s nominations. Will they again become active party people after decades of passivity? Only time will tell.
The third category is likely to be the greatest disappointment to the Paul campaign. These people, however many, are extremely active on the Internet and effectively “rule” (or, as Rush Limbaugh claims, “spams”) the political discussions and are experts at creating a buzz on numerous sites such as YouTube, Facebook, and MeetUp. (Internet is their life, so why wouldn’t they know the “wheres” and “hows”?)
However, to be honest, a lot of these people might be very eagerly supporting Ron Paul and spreading his message digitally, but they are nothing but political philosophy and/or computer geeks. My guess is they don’t meet much people in real life (except, perhaps, for the pizza delivery guy and the people selling Jolt Cola at 7-Eleven), and so their influence on the political process is at best marginal.
There are of course quite a few individuals in each of these three categories who cannot be dismissed as easily as the stereotypic caricatures. Just because a large number of the Internet “Paulians” are computer geeks, it doesn’t follow that all of them are: there seems to be a great number of “real, ‘normal’ people” following and supporting Ron Paul. Most of them still fit in one (or two or three) of the categories outlined above, but they might not be as bad as I have chosen to describe them.
Actually, there should be a sub group of people of each category who are more than willing to support Ron Paul and to do it in a real way: through campaigning and party activism as well as voting in the primaries. The question is simply: how many are they? What is important here is: Are their numbers sufficient for winning?
As always in politics it is a winner takes all game, and Paul is still an underdog with (from the mainstream perspective) unexpected grassroots support with a campaign using the power of the Internet wisely. Can he win? It was highly unlikely, but it is less unlikely for every day that passes.
The reason? Paul’s campaign is utilizing the support in a very wise manner: the clearly formulated yet radical message of Paul makes headlines. As long as the campaign HQ can show real achievements on the Internet, and as long as the rooms where Paul is about to speak keep getting literally packed with supporters, reporters will realize there is real news about this guy from “nowhere.” As the the political shit hits the fan…
Also, so far the mainstream “big government” candidates have managed to increase Paul’s underdog and “challenger” image, which only makes him and his supporters stronger. As long as they, i.e., “Rudy McRomney,” stupidly refuses to debate Paul his followers will gain in numbers, get more active, and get even stronger. And the mainstream candidates will seem even less “of the people” and “for the people.”
The mainstream candidates have already lost the battle for “killing” Ron Paul. Whatever they do now can only make him stronger: keeping him out in the cold will cement the notion of Paul being a non-Establishment candidate, and suddenly welcoming him to the debates will inevitably make his message seem legitimate. No matter how the establishment decides to handle Ron Paul, they will lose.
But will they lose sufficiently for Paul to actually win? If Paul’s supporters are as many as they seem, they might be able to defeat the neocons and re-establish the Old Right in the Republican Party. But “If” should be written in bold capital letters – it is still a huge “if” and quite an accomplishment if done.