Imagine if you will, the ideal Tea Party presidential candidate. This is a movement dedicated to small government, limited constitutionalism, free enterprise and combating crony capitalism. Not a career politician like Rick Perry. Not a desperate panderer like Mitt Romney. And no, not an ideologically unpredictable disgraced former House Speaker who took money from healthcare companies and government-sponsored entities like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to promote their interests. (That’s Newt Gingrich, in case you couldn’t tell.)
Instead, picture a man who perfectly embodies the Tea Party’s identity and values. A cranky old white man, he can, unlike his opponents, boast of having both served in the military and worked in the private sector. He is a relentlessly pure ideologue: he would rather let the global economy collapse than lend money to banks at a profit. He is utterly impractical. He would rather be right than win. He has dedicated his career to staunchly supporting states’ rights and opposing wasteful spending at home and abroad.
He’s not a true libertarian: he takes socially conservative stances like opposing immigration and reproductive freedom. But the Tea Party is composed of social conservatives. Political scientists David E. Campbell and Robert D. Putnam found, “Next to being a Republican, the strongest predictor of being a Tea Party supporter today was a desire, back in 2006, to see religion play a prominent role in politics.”
There is, of course, the matter of his past racism. And that raises the possibility that his opposition to social spending is motivated by racial resentment. But there’s survey data to suggest he’s hardly alone among Tea Partiers in that regard.
The man is Ron Paul. And yes, he is surging in Iowa. But no, he won’t be the Republican nominee for president, and he isn’t the Tea Party candidate either. Why is that? His foreign policy views are simply at odds with a majority of Tea Party voters. And because Tea Party leaders want to win, even if they are more sympathetic to Paul, they won’t try to force Paul onto the movement.
You must distinguish between the different Tea Parties. There’s the Tea Party of professional political activists at organizations like FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity. These activists are informed and intensely conservative on fiscal issues. They generally say that Paul is indeed their favorite candidate on pure principle. But these are political operators: they want to win, and they don’t back sure losers.
Then there’s the mass of voters and occasional activists who identify with the Tea Party. They tend to be conservative Republicans who are often turned off by Paul’s non-interventionist foreign policy and perhaps his opposition to the drug war and the Patriot Act.
Between the two groups are leaders of grassroots organizations like Tea Party Patriots. They may be closer to Paul ideologically but they are committed to letting the grassroots members guide them. Tea Party Patriots recently hosted a telephone forum with candidates followed by a straw poll. Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum participated. Rick Perry and Ron Paul did not participate due to scheduling conflicts and Jon Huntsman did not respond to the invitation. There were over 23,000 respondents. Gingrich won with 31 percent, followed by Bachmann at 28 percent, Romney with 20, Santorum with 16, and Paul came in fifth with only 3 percent. Clearly participation influenced the results, but the fact that Paul has much more faithfully followed Tea Party principles throughout his career obviously didn’t carry much weight. “On foreign policy probably the majority [of Tea Party Patriots] are more like [hawks] Michele Bachmann or Newt Gingrich,” says Jenny Beth Martin, a national coordinator for the group. “A lot of people say ‘I really like Ron Paul’ and then when it comes to his foreign policy they get a little skittish.”
“In our polling there have been favorites,” says Sal Russo, chief strategist of Tea Party Express, which conducts private polls of its members. “We’ve gone through Gingrich, Romney, Bachmann, Cain, Gingrich; Palin did well until she decided not to run. We’ve never seen a spike for Ron Paul or Rick Santorum.” Russo attributes Paul’s relative weakness to fears about his electability. “While he’s good on our economic issues, there is a correlation between being conservative on economic issues and for other political issues,” says Russo. “That probably inhibits some of his support in the Tea Party movement, even though that’s not a defining issue for us in the Tea Party Express.”
It’s also important, as Russo notes, not to make too much of Paul’s surging poll numbers, or even a Paul victory in Iowa. Iowa is a better state than many for Paul’s foreign policy. More importantly, there are half a dozen other candidates splitting the vote among people who will not vote for Paul. When the race narrows, hawkish voters will consolidate around one or two of Paul’s opponents. “There is an element in both political parties for that [non-interventionist] point of view, so for some, it’s a plus,” says Russo of Paul’s foreign policy. “It’s more of a plus in a state like Iowa that’s had some isolationist elements over the years. He could do well in Iowa. One on one he probably couldn’t do that well. But in a crowded field he could do well.” As the Washington Post/ABC News poll released Wednesday shows, Paul is the first or second choice for 27 percent of Republicans. But 45 percent cite Paul's foreign policy as a "major reason" to oppose him, as compared to 36 percent who say that of Romney's much-discussed healthcare law in Massachusetts. Fifty-one percent also say Paul doesn't have the temperment to be president.
Brendan Steinhauser, director of field operations for FreedomWorks estimates that Paul has the support of about 15 to 20 percent of their constituency but that his views are only supported by 10 to 15 percent of the Republican Party. And foreign policy is where he loses them. “If he focuses on the cost and size and scope of defense it will give him a better chance of winning those voters,” says Steinhauser. “Commenting on how to deal with [Syria’s President] Assad and Iran—whether he’s right or wrong—that’s how he loses a lot of GOPers.”
On the ground in the early states, Paul has won over some, but not all, Tea Party activists. Jane Aitken, a statewide coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots in New Hampshire says Paul has very strong support there. “Paul voters have a 0% chance of changing their minds,” says Aitken in an e-mail. “They know his record because it's the most consistent of them all.” But in Iowa Ryan Rhodes, the state Tea Party coordinator, is more skeptical. “[Paul]’s getting a push from Democrats, that is really where a large chunk [of his support in polls] is coming from, anti-war Democrats,” says Rhodes. Public Policy Polling, which conducted the recent poll showing Paul leading in Iowa, is a liberal-leaning firm, and Rhodes thinks the poll was weighted towards Democrats. In Iowa you can register for the caucuses on caucus night, meaning Democrats could, in fact, caucus as Republicans for Paul. Rhodes adds that to Tea Partiers even Paul isn’t pure enough, because he has requested earmarks for his district. Then again, if Ron Paul isn’t a good enough fiscal conservative for you, no one would be, not even Charles Koch and Friedrich Hayek.