Manchester, NH—The career of Representative Ron Paul (R-TX), just peaked. The 76-year-old congressman never passed much legislation. He lived for this moment when he would bask in the glory of his maximum popularity. After performing surprising well in the Iowa caucuses, Paul has finished second in New Hampshire with 23 percent of the vote.
But it’s all downhill from here. The campaign will now head on to Southern states, where Republican voters are more hawkish and socially conservative than those in New Hampshire. The media will lose interest in Paul once Mitt Romney, who won both Iowa and New Hampshire, has the nomination presumptively wrapped up. Paul has said he won’t run for re-election to Congress this year, and he’s unlikely to run for president again in 2016. His maximum relevance was yesterday.
You’d never know it, though, from the demeanor of Paul and the majority of his supporters. At Paul’s election night celebration Tuesday night in Manchester, New Hampshire, he addressed a crowd that was younger, longer-haired and noticeably more boisterous than those drawn by his competitors at their recent campaign events. Where other candidates’ supporters have only cheers that reflect their candidate preference—“Mitt, Mitt, Mitt”—Paul’s have cheers for all his major platform planks. Whenever Paul hit the appropriate line in his speech, the crowd would break into a chant: “End the Fed!” “Bring them [our soldiers] home!” and “Ron Paul revolution, we support our Constitution!”
Paul proudly declared “a victory for the cause of liberty tonight,” and promised, “This effort will not go unnoticed.” But it probably will. In 2008 Paul performed surprisingly well in the primaries, but the Republican Party has hardly adopted his platform. Most of his opponents are as hawkish as George W. Bush. The only movement towards Paul’s position on one of his hobbyhorses is the mainstreaming of demonizing the Federal Reserve and fretting about the “soundness” of our money. But that’s only because there’s a Democrat in the White House and the Fed—which incidentally is still run by Bush appointee Ben Bernanke—taking action to boost the economy, could damage a Republican’s chances of winning the presidency. As soon as there is a Republican president, Republicans will rediscover the virtues of goosing the monetary supply when a recession hits.
The distinction among Paul supporters seems to often—though, of course, not always—break down along generational lines. Older Paul supporters, presumably lifelong Republicans and staunch fiscal conservatives, are typically willing to support Romney if he is the Republican nominee. In fact, many say Romney is their second choice among the Republicans.
State Senator Tom Deblois is a Romney supporter, but his business partners support Paul, so he was at Paul’s celebration. Deblois’s partners said Romney would be an acceptable substitute. “I think [Paul’s] reached his peak support,” said Steve Matthew. Matthew thinks concerns about Paul’s electability and foreign policy will make it hard for Paul to perform as well as he did here as the primaries continue. “There are a lot of people who won’t support him because of his age, worry about whether he can win, and his foreign policy,” said Matthew. “Although I agree with him on foreign policy, a lot of people don’t.” Matthew disagrees with Romney’s foreign policy proposals, such as spending more on the military, and he disapproves of Romney’s healthcare reform in Massachusetts. But he thinks Obama is “killing small business,” through regulations such as Dodd-Frank, rules issued by the Environmental Protection Agency and healthcare reform.
Younger Paul supporters who strongly support his foreign policy views are more apt to say that other Republicans are simply unacceptable. Some of the younger attendees Tuesday night said they would vote for Obama or for Gary Johnson, a libertarian running as a third-party candidate since he dropped out of the Republican primary. Ryan Howard-Stone, 19, who stood outside a Concord polling station all day holidng a sign for Paul, said he would vote for Johnson if Paul is not the nominee. Stephanie Leary, another young Paul supporter, said she wasn’t sure if she could vote for another Republican, although, “I could live with Romney more than Santorum or Gingrich.” Leary is gay, and she is troubled by Santorum’s and Gingrich’s histories of homophobia and their warmongering towards Iran. Robin Spielberger, a young Paul volunteer who came up to New Hampshire from Memphis, Tennessee, said she would write in Paul if he is not the Republican nominee. She summed up the standard view of Paul’s young supporters when she said, “I’m not voting for the lesser evil.”
Paul is likely to seek policy promises from the GOP nominee in exchange for his endorsement. When I asked Paul’s campaign manager Jesse Benton on Saturday night if Paul would endorse the Republican nominee, Benton said, “That’s not a definite. We’ll have to have a conversation about that. We’re open to a discussion. It depends on who the nominee is and it depends what they say.” No Republican nominee would be well advised to offer Paul too much in the way of policy concessions, as the endorsement won’t be terribly valuable. As you would expect from a group that is largely young and libertarian-leaning, Paul supporters are an ornery bunch, not likely to vote for anyone because someone else tells them to do so. Even some who might reluctantly vote for Romney themselves told me they would view Paul’s endorsing Romney as a betrayal. “After 30 years of standing for his principles, why would he abandon them?” demanded Shelly Temple, a Paul voter who attended his party on Tuesday.
If Paul wants to be remembered by his adoring young fans as the hero they believed in, he’ll fight to the bitter end and never make a compromise. But tonight is the beginning of the end for Paul.