Ron Paul led in many December polls of likely Iowa caucus-goers. He was statistically tied for the lead in the last Des Moines Register poll, a solid barometer of the caucus. He led in tonight's entrace polls, before it was found that they exaggerated his support among evangelicals and the percentage of crossover voters. The candidate himself predicted a first or at least second-place showing.
Paul led at various points tonight, particularly in the early returns. But in the end, the antiwar, libertarian-leaning congressman from Texas finished third. Paul lost the expectations battle. Perhaps it was karma for a rude tweet -- promptly deleted -- sent out under Paul's name that mocked Jon Huntsman, who bypassed the caucuses, for his poor showing. The disappointment was evident on Rand Paul's face as his father gave his concession speech.
Yet by almost any measure, Paul has made huge strides in just four years. He more than doubled his Iowa tally from 2008. He brought in a large number of independents, Democrats, and young voters while improving his standing among key Republican demographics. He competed with fully engaged candidates preferred by social conservatives and the Republican establishment, and was competitive with both. And he may still come away with the most delegates.
It's true Paul needed a large crossover vote to compete at Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney's level, which will limit him in the Republican race (ask the 2000 version of John McCain). But these are exactly the kind of voters the GOP has lost in the past six years, some of whom they need to win back. It's also true that there is still a ceiling on Paul's foreign policy views within the GOP, especially as Paul communicates them. But they are less of a liability than they were in the Bush years.
The bottom line is that Paul showed his "secret plan" can actually work, especially caucus states that will receive less attention than Iowa. The big test is whether the volunteers who got clean for Ron can avoid disappointment and keep their eyes on the prize. Unlike those of his rivals, Ron Paul's presidential campaign is more about building a movement for the future than winning the Republican nomination in 2012.
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