When Ron Paul announced his 2012 campaign for president, I joked that his odds had improved from nil to slim since 2008. The odds are still stacked heavily against him, but there seems to be a path that could lead him to the Republican nomination and possible victory.
Despite many of the big media outlets’ unwillingness to even mention Paul’s second place finish at the Ames Straw Poll this weekend, it likely signals that he will perform well in the caucuses in January. New York Times number cruncher Nate Silver argues that Ames is the best predictor we have at this stage of the race for performance in the Iowa caucuses. Even when Silver includes several other predictors in his analysis, all signs currently point to Paul and Michele Bachmann leading the pack by a substantial margin.
But Ron Paul doesn’t need to win Iowa like Michele Bachmann does. If Paul finishes with a strong second in Iowa behind Bachmann, he will build momentum going into New Hampshire while simultaneously denying it to Mitt Romney. Romney limps into New Hampshire after losing to an evangelical candidate, allowing a legislator who has openly feuded with his party’s leadership on several key issues to win the primary–we’ve seen that movie before. At the moment, the prediction market InTrade puts Paul’s chances of winning the New Hampshire primary at 20%, which is not great, but it’s within the realm of possibility.
If Paul wins in New Hampshire, a victory in the Nevada caucuses would be practically assured. South Carolina is a potential stumbling block, but with two wins and a second place finish, it’s hard to see how a loss there would doom his campaign. That brings us to Super Tuesday, and there’s no good way to predict that mess. However, if Paul performs well up to that point, voters’ natural herd mentality will begin to set in, and many will rally to him based on nothing more than his newly crafted appearance as a winner.
Paul also benefits tremendously from the sheer number of candidates likely to linger on in the race through Super Tuesday. Bachmann, Perry, Romney, and whatever other empty suit (or dress) decides to run will mostly be dividing up the same group of voters, but Paul’s base is rock solid. No other candidate will lure them away. If three or four other candidates split the vote, Paul can win states with 25 or 30% of the ballots. The danger he faces is that the other candidates will eventually drop out and give their delegates to one of the survivors, and it seems likely that they would give their delegates any other candidate than Paul.
None of this is likely, but that’s true of many successful presidential nomination campaigns. In 2008, John McCain’s campaign was declared dead before a single vote was even cast. In 1972, Hubert Humphrey nearly won the Democratic nomination on the convention floor, despite performing much worse than George McGovern in the primaries. Perhaps most famously, at this time in 1991, almost no one outside of Arkansas knew the name “Bill Clinton.” Will Ron Paul win? I still doubt it. But can he win? Definitely.