WASHINGTON (TheStreet) -- Ron Paul announced another run for president this morning, which is great for the Republican hopeful's rabid followers but doesn't offer a lot of information for Americans still unsure what he's all about.
U.S. Rep. Ron Paul has spent 14 terms endearing his libertarian-minded fiscal policies to his constituents in Texas and roughly the past five years spreading the gospel of economic forbearance to a broader national following that loves him for it. The supporters he picked up during the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries of the 2008 presidential election were drawn to his calls for decreased federal debt, reined-in spending (including military cuts that put him at odds with the GOP establishment) and overall smaller government.
Ron Paul has an uphill battle in another run for president, starting with the fact a poll shows he's popular with only about 5% of potential Republican voters.
His message hasn't changed, but America's stance toward it certainly has. The economic crisis that ushered in the tea party movement and helped install some of its acolytes in office during the midterm elections brought many of Paul's criticisms of public programs, foreign policy and the monetary system to the fore. While some of his views are still considered extreme even in conservative circles -- ending foreign aid, immediately withdrawing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, defending legalization of drugs including heroin (as he did last week during a Republican debate on
) -- elements of his platform are becoming more palatable to mainstream Republicans and voters.
"I think there was more of a consensus on foreign affairs four years ago within the Republican party and Congressman Paul was outside that consensus, and it disqualified him from being considered a serious candidate," says Trey Grayson, director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "Four years later, especially after the death of Osama bin Laden, there's a lot less consistency in the Republican party on foreign affairs."
Few can offer as much insight into Paul's popularity as Grayson, who served as Kentucky's secretary of state from 2003 until January, capping his second term with a run against Paul's son Rand Paul in a race for the vacant Senate seat of Republican stalwart Jim Bunning. Despite endorsements from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, former Vice President Dick Cheney and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Grayson lost the election by 23 points as Rand Paul's popularity with tea party supporters and libertarians swept him into office.
Congressman Paul is still popular with only about 5% of potential Republican voters and, according to a Rassmussen Reports
, trails President Barack Obama in a matchup 42% to 34%. Still, Grayson says Paul and his followers will grab more of voters' attention than they did during the 2008 campaign, partly because the electorate is more receptive to what they've heard about Paul's platform. But these five things the general public doesn't know about Ron Paul may just be his biggest strengths:
1. Ron Paul isn't a candidate, he's a community
When Ron Paul steps up to a podium, there isn't just a campaign behind him, but legions of followers chatting on RonPaulForums.com, sending out fundraising messages on YouTube, keeping up with him on DailyPaul.com and, for a brief while, finding love libertarian style on the now-defunct RonPaulSingles.com. It's a cohesive, committed community and woe to the candidate who underestimates it.
"For many of the Ron Paul supporters, it's like a lifestyle or a calling," Grayson says. "I don't want to equate it to a church because that sounds cultlike and that's not fair, but people who believe in Congressman Paul have this sort of bond and kinship that causes them to do other things."
Though Paul was unsuccessful in 2008, supporters have been instrumental in pressuring members of Congress for more auditing of the Federal Reserve and retained their relevance throughout the 2010 midterms. During his race against Rand Paul, Grayson says his campaign monitored the Ron Paul forums and chat rooms just to see how his followers were reacting and what they were planning.
"I don't know that these people can actually win, but they can impact the debate now," Grayson says. "None of the other candidates have that: They might have more supporters, but they don't have supporters for whom this is such an important part of their life."
2. Ron Paul drops money bombs
On Nov. 5, 2007, Ron Paul's team raised $4.2 million without ever picking up a phone or taking Paul off the campaign trail. A month later, Paul's tech team topped themselves by soliciting donations via YouTube, MySpace and other social networking sites and raking in another $6 million. The short-term, high-intensity fundraising known as the "money bomb" was born and, while it came too late to save the 2008 nomination, the Paul campaign's starting the bombing run early for 2012.
"They had the Fox News debate last week and there wasn't even a full-blown money bomb and they made $1 million in the snap of a finger," Grayson says. "For most candidates for president to raise $1 million in a matter of hours without lifting a phone or sending an email ... Mitt Romney might have the resources to raise money that quickly, but none of the others probably do."
The key, if not only, similarity between candidates Paul and Romney is that their support structure from the 2008 campaign remains intact and gives them a decided advantage over GOP newcomers. That edge may not mean much after the party hopefuls have finished bashing away at each other, but it provides a nice head start to a financially punishing race.
"In a presidential primary process that has a bunch of small states at the beginning that allow you to run without tons of money, because it doesn't cost tons of money to win in Iowa or New Hampshire, having that group of followers who are devoted to you and enjoy being in a community with one another is a nice recipe for having a much bigger impact today than four years ago," Grayson says.
The Web-focused money bombs only do so much. Rand's followers have a finite amount of money and once the Republican field whittles down to a few candidates, Grayson says even the tea party candidates have a better opportunity to build a national organization and larger fundraising network than Paul. While money bombs might not make Paul the richest candidate, the means by which they raise funds make him one of the most efficient.
3. Ron Paul's friends have friends
The AARP, the American Family Association and National Rifle Association have many Republican friends, but Ron Paul usually isn't among them. Fortunately for other, smaller issues groups, Paul doesn't care.
"There are a lot of third-party independent groups that are out there that help to promote a lot of the ideas that candidate Paul espouses," Grayson says. "Those groups will be out there and they will help out."
Paul's own Campaign for Liberty and its money bombs offer a firm base, but it's other groups such as the uncompromising Gun Owners of America -- which often criticizes the NRA for softening its stance on gun rights -- and the anti-union National Right To Work Legal Defense Committee that help bolster a candidate they believe is as adamant about their causes as their own membership. If there's any doubt about the campaign effectiveness of second-tier groups such as the American Tradition Partnership, which vows to fight "environmental extremism," Grayson says his primary against Rand Paul was evidence that their tenacity makes their presence in Ron Paul's corner worthwhile.
"One of these groups endorsed Rand in the primary and then, months later, sent us their endorsement questionnaire," Grayson says. "We didn't fill out the questionnaire because they endorsed him, so why bother, so then they sent out a mailer to their mailing list saying that Trey Grayson didn't fill out his questionnaire and therefore he must be anti-gun, pro-labor union or whatever it happened to be, which is absurd."
4. It's not a show: Ron Paul's always that libertarian
If you want some idea of how unwavering Ron Paul is in his ideals, compare his campaign with his son's Senate bid last year. Ron Paul still holds to the notion that the military detention facility in Guantanamo Bay should be closed immediately. Rand held a similar view at the beginning of his campaign, but changed his mind after it became clear the stance could become a liability.
It's the Pauls' varied views of the American military presence in Afghanistan, however, that draws the thickest line of demarcation.
"Rand will say that he would have voted to declare war in Afghanistan," Grayson says. "He wouldn't say what we're doing is unconstitutional because we're at war without a declaration of war, but that's kind of how his dad would approach it."
While libertarianism informs a lot of the Republican party platform and the views of Republican party candidates and is more popular today than 10 years ago, Grayson says the reality of the Republican primary process is that Paul's brand of pure libertarianism just doesn't play on a national level. While Grayson acknowledges that a lot of Republicans might want to dismantle certain functions of government, Paul's desire to eliminate the Department of Energy, Department of Commerce, Department of Education, Federal Reserve and other government elements is too much for most mainstream Republicans and even his tea party-friendly son.
"They're both out of the mainstream, but the way Rand markets it may be a little bit softer and sounds more mainstream even if it's in line with his father," Grayson says. "I don't think Rand would say anything about heroin users like his dad said in the debate last week -- he might have the same view, but he'll never say it."
5. Ron Paul's followers and finances far outnumber his chances
No member of the House of Representatives has been elected president since James Garfield in 1881. It's a tough obstacle, but still one of the smallest that Paul faces.
Paul's principled stances come off as personality quirks to mainstream Republicans, while his unorthodox plans for national defense leave much of the GOP cold. Grayson says his migration from realism and misgivings about projecting U.S. power abroad put him well outside the Republican mainstream.
That's fine if you're a fed-up follower looking to change the system, but not so great when the system is still determining candidates' "electability" and groups including the Republican Governors Association -- which raised $177 million for the 2010 midterms and spent $132 million on its various candidates -- hold the purse strings. The perception that Paul won't win in the fall prevents the GOP mainstream from investing in him in the spring, leaving his followers' donations as his one flush but finite source of funding. Less than six months after the tea party's midterm victories, the Republican establishment is still strong, and something Grayson says Paul can't do without if he ever wants a chance at the presidency.
"The money bombs are unique to him, Rand and the movement, but it's not enough to get past more than a couple of primary states -- you run out of money," Grayson says. "If Rand and I had been running in California, I would have been able to raise a lot more money as the establishment candidate, but he wouldn't have been able to raise that much more as the son of Ron Paul and a tea party candidate."
-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.
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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.