My friends who support Ron Paul are very excited by a new poll that shows him leading in Iowa. For them, it’s the first sign of the breakthrough they’ve been expecting to reveal that more people are “seeing the light.” I’m on record as saying that Paul can’t win the presidency — even though it would make me happy — so Paul’s supporters won’t believe my analysis. But let me explain why this poll doesn’t mean much.
First, let’s take the poll results at face value and assume they’re correct. Paul has been pounding Gingrich hard with effective advertising lately that exposes Gingrich as the phony he is. (Unfortunately, the ad plays a bit fast and loose with some key facts, but let’s ignore that since it doesn’t affect the horse race, which is what I’m talking about today.) It’s natural that Gingrich might have fallen some in the face of the attacks and some of that support could have gone to Paul.
But there’s a key piece of information that some of Paul’s supporters haven’t noticed. The people who support Paul support him and nobody else. The rest of the people pretty much support anybody other than Ron Paul. I say this because Paul is second choice for only 9 percent of the voters who don’t support him. So as other candidates drop out, their supporters are far less likely to jump on the Paul bandwagon. They’ll be joining other candidates instead.
This is simply the mirror image of Paul’s strong support among his supporters. They see such a gap between his views and everybody else’s views that they aren’t willing to support any other halfway viable Republican. In the same way, the people who don’t support Paul similarly see his views as far outside the mainstream views of the rest of the candidates. So if the candidate they like drops out, there are several other candidates whose positions are very similar to the candidate they had previously supported.
In other words, even if you assume this poll is accurate, this is about as high as Paul can go — using the data from the same poll.
Next, let’s assume the poll is accurate and let’s assume that Paul could win Iowa. Just to make it interesting, let’s assume he could also win the New Hampshire primary a week later. How would that affect the later primaries — where the vast bulk of delegates will be selected? In truth, it would get Paul tremendous publicity, but it wouldn’t make any difference to the far more socially conservative Republicans in the delegate-rich states elsewhere, especially the South.
Iowa and New Hampshire Republicans don’t have a lot in common with Florida Republicans or Alabama Republicans, for instance, on average. Iowa is far more of a centrist state, and the results there won’t necessarily say anything about how social conservatives in other places are going to react to Paul’s libertarian positions.
Finally, let’s consider whether this poll is accurate or not. Survey research is a science, but you have to make quite a number of judgement calls about how to “weight” certain groups. For instance, in the case of the Iowa caucuses, a pollster has to figure out what percentage of people who will attend the caucuses will be self-identified Republicans, what percentage will be self-identified independents and what percentage will be self-identified Democrats. This analysis shows the assumptions made by the poll in question and explains why those assumptions are probably inaccurately inflating Paul’s performance here.
As I said, I don’t believe Ron Paul has any chance of winning the presidency. I actually think he might have a better chance in the general election than he does to get the GOP nomination. If his supporters are going to have any chance to feel excited for a little while, it will be in Iowa and New Hampshire. But for the reasons I’ve laid out before, he has no chance with the vast bulk of socially conservative Republicans who are very hostile to libertarian ideas on anything other than economics. (And even with economics, they like rhetoric more than someone who will actually do the things they claim to want.)
So if Paul does well in Iowa and New Hampshire, you can get your hopes up if you want to, but count on them to be dashed pretty quickly in the months after that. I’ve been wrong before, of course, but I just can’t see how things could play out well for Paul between now and the GOP convention.
So what’s my prediction for Paul in Iowa? I don’t feel strongly about it, because I don’t have a good feel for the data or the situation on the ground there. If I were forced to guess, though, I’d say Paul will likely finish second there. Gingrich might win, but it wouldn’t be terribly surprising if Gingrich’s collapse continues and Mitt Romney ends up on top.
Whatever happens in Iowa, I don’t see it affecting the race in the long term. I’m sorry to be a bearer of bad news, but I think the facts support my analysis.