Ron Paul is just as likely to win support from Democratic voters as their Republican counterparts, writes Senior Research Fellow at the Margaret Thatcher Center in Washington Ted Bromund.
There’s no particular reason why foreign observers should know how the American system for nominating presidential candidates works. It has its virtues, but clarity is not one of them. There is the confusing distinction between primaries and caucuses, and an even deeper maze of rules that vary from state to state about how votes are translated into delegates to the national party conventions. Most Americans would be hard-pressed to explain how their state goes about the process, never mind how the system – if it merits that name – works on the national level. But foreign confusion has its consequences. One of them is illustrated by British commentary from the left on the candidacy of Rep. Ron Paul from Texas for the Republican nomination.
This commentary – nicely illustrated by this piece on Huffington Post UK – tends to depict Paul as “a long time sweetheart of the fringe Republican crowd, [who] represents the old Wild West temperament of a free spirited cowboy.” Or, to quote the Guardian’s portrait of the “Maverick who could decide the future of the Republican Party” (Apparently an unwritten rule of journalism requires that all articles on Paul must contain the word “maverick”.) Paul “remains at heart an ultra-conservative guided by a rigid dislike of government.” Only occasionally does a commentator break a bit from the pack, as Megan Carpentier did last month by criticizing the refusal of a few American left-wingers to condemn Paul outright. But Carpentier’s guiding assumption was still that Paul is firmly – or extremely – on the right, and her piece came to the predictable conclusion that “Paul’s newest supporters on the left look strikingly like the majority of the ones on the right who have followed him for years,” i.e. the (supposedly) selfish and privileged.
The nomination process offers an interesting way to assess this British commentary. One of the interesting features of the process is that not all states restrict voting in a presidential primary to members of one party. Some states – such as Michigan, which held its primary on Tuesday – have “open” primaries, i.e. they’re open to all voters. Other states have semi-open primaries (i.e. undeclared voters can vote for either party), or closed primaries (only registered Democrats, for example, can vote in the Democratic primary). In Michigan, exit polling suggests that about 10 percent of the voters in the Republican primary were Democrats. A goodly number were presumably responding to an appeal by former Senator Rick Santorum, asking for support against former governor Mitt Romney. The Santorum campaign said it was targeting “Reagan Democrats,” i.e. moderates, but that was not who showed up: more than half – 57 percent – of the voting Democrats defined themselves as “liberal.” A last-minute appeal from a Democratic political consultant urging Democrats to vote for Santorum as “an embarrassment for Mitt Romney” presumably also carried some weight.
The 2012 campaign is not the first to feature members of one party being urged to vote against the presumptive front-runner on the other side, and it will not be the last. In the end, the cross-voting made the race close, but it was not enough to keep Romney from winning with a 30,000 vote margin over Santorum. But the results a bit lower down the tote board were just as interesting. Paul took third place, with 115,000 votes, or 11.6 percent of the total. Exit polling from CNN suggests that 17 percent of the Democrats voted for Paul, while Santorum took 53 percent and Romney 18 percent. Indeed, in spite of Paul’s “maverick” tag, he was only barely stronger among independents – where he won 21 percent of the vote – than he was among Democrats.
Voting by ideology was equally suggestive: Paul won 5 percent of the very conservative vote, and 17 percent of the moderate and liberal share. His voters tend to oppose or strongly oppose the Tea Party (26 percent of those voting) instead of supporting it (15 percent). They believe abortion should be always legal (17 percent of those voting) and not always illegal (6 percent), and they are not much or at all interested in the religious beliefs of the candidates. That is the profile of a candidate with a strong appeal on the left, not the right. The fact that only 4 percent of those committed to vote Republican in November went for Paul again suggests that Paul’s supporters are not voting Republican – or conservative – as much as they are voting for Paul personally. The fact that Paul did best among voters who were concerned to find a candidate with “strong moral character” only adds to this impression. Nor were his voters obviously privileged: he did best with voters who lack a college degree and earn less than $50,000 a year.
Then there is the question of libertarianism. Paul is commonly described as a libertarian, but his supporters are less well-defined. They are libertarian on abortion, but they also are more inclined than average to believe that prior experience in government – not business – is the best preparation for being President. And while a bare plurality of Michigan primary voters (50 percent to 44 percent) disapproved of the U.S. government’s bailout of American automakers, Paul did better among those who approved of it. More broadly, the curious fact is that, in spite of the imputation by the British left that Paul is the favorite of conservative Republicans, polling by Gallup suggests the exact reverse: he is close to being the favorite of the Democrats. In mid-January, Gallup found that Democrats disliked Newt Gingrich by a net total of 40 points, Texas Governor Rick Perry by 30 points, Santorum by 28 points, Romney by 12 points, and Paul by 10 points. The only Republican more popular than Paul among Democrats was former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, now out of the race. Five percent of Democrats had a strongly favorable impression of Paul – again, only Huntsman did better. If you read the British commentary it is strange that Paul is only barely more popular among Republicans than he is among Democrats -- but it is true nonetheless.
In other words, contrary to Carpentier, the issue is not that a few popular left-wing bloggers have refused to condemn Paul: the issue is that his supporters could as easily be characterized as Democrats and liberals as Republicans or conservatives. Nor, when it comes down to particular issues, can they readily be categorized as libertarians. If the Guardian dislikes Paul, that is their business. But if they are unhappy with Americans who vote for him, they should look at the left as well as the right. As my colleague Matt Spalding points out, there are certainly reasons for defenders of American leadership around the world to be concerned about the appeal of Paul’s supporters to the false tradition of isolationism. But what is just as interesting is that the less well-off, less-educated, the less-religious, the young, and the unmarried, most of whom normally lean Democratic, are this time out going disproportionately (though not in large numbers) for Paul. It is an open question whether that trend is best described as reshaping the Republican Party by bringing new voters in, reshaping the Democratic Party by leading traditional voters out, or as the action of voters fundamentally unaffiliated with either party – and, absent Paul, likely to back neither.
Dr. Ted R. Bromund is the Margaret Thatcher Senior Research Fellow in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom in the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC. He joined Heritage in 2008 after a decade as the Associate Director of International Security Studies at Yale University, a research and teaching centre dedicated to diplomatic, military and strategic history, and grand strategy.