Come January 2013, Dr. No will stop making House calls. Ron Paul made a surprise announcement yesterday that he would not run for reelection to his congressional seat this fall, focusing instead on his second Republican presidential campaign.
“I felt it was better that I concentrate on one election,” Paul told a local newspaper. “It’s about that time when I should change tactics.” In 1996, the same year Paul returned to Congress, Bob Dole was down in the polls and out of campaign cash. So the 35-year Capitol Hill veteran announced his resignation from the Senate.
“I will seek the presidency with nothing to fall back on but the judgment of the people of the United States and nowhere to go but the White House or home,” Dole said. Paul is given much less chance of reaching the White House than Dole. But unlike the former Senate majority leader, he isn’t out of money.
Why give up a safe House seat — and, at long last, a subcommittee chairmanship — to focus on a longshot presidential bid? To ask that question is to fundamentally misunderstand what makes Ron Paul different from other politicians.
Paul sees himself in large part as an educator, someone seeking to advance his particular brand of constitutional conservatism and right-wing libertarianism. For him, the House floor was a platform for talking about the Constitution, the gold standard, and Austrian economics. It was a place where he could rail against the Federal Reserve, speak out against foreign wars and fit currency, and quote Mises and Rothbard.
Now Paul has acquired a much larger platform. He gets to stand on the stage and debate presidential candidates pundits believe will be the next Republican nominee. In 2007, when he was stuck at 1 percent in the polls, he got to mix it up with Rudy Giuliani and John McCain. Paul is a much bigger presence than ever before. And wherever he goes, he now draws big, young crowds.
That doesn’t mean that winning votes isn’t important. Paul was elected to Congress three times as a non-incumbent. Brian Doherty, author of Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of American Libertarianism, notes that this might be an unprecedented achievement. In the course of his twelve terms, he frequently trounced Democratic — and hawkish Republican — opponents.
Paul campaign insiders believe they have an opportunity to make a statement in the 2012 presidential race. The issues environment, with its focus on debt and government growth rather than war and peace, is more favorable. The field is weaker. Paul’s son Rand recently demonstrated that Paulite arguments can be framed in a way that appeals to a broader range of Republicans.
Currently, Paul appears to be a (distant) second in fundraising behind presumptive frontrunner Mitt Romney. Polls show him as high as third place in both New Hampshire and Iowa, with national surveys frequently finding him ahead of Tim Pawlenty and Jon Hunstman, two of the media’s favorite serious candidates. He’s not exactly keeping Romney or fellow Texan Rick Perry awake at night. But Paul has more support than four years ago.
But there is nothing inevitable about a much improved performance once the voting starts. Before Michele Bachmann got into the race, Paul was increasingly inching into the double digits in national polls. Since she began gaining traction, Paul has slipped back below 10 percent. Bachmann also knocked Paul out of second place in New Hampshire.
To take it to the next level, Paul supporters believe they need to fix four mistakes from the previous campaign. Last time around, had impressive Internet “money bombs” but he raised the money too late to make much difference in the early states. So this time, they are front-loading their fundraising.
In 2008, Paul’s campaign was amateurish and disorganized. Phone calls from reporters went unanswered. Schedules were published late if at all. There was no discernible strategy. Three years later, things are more polished. The campaign sends out regular press releases and even opposition research on the other candidates. There seems to be more planning.
There has definitely been a concerted effort to channel the grassroots supporters’ energy into something more productive than alienating the supporters of other Republican presidential candidates. It’s still a work in progress — there was noticeable bad blood between the Paul backers and everyone else at both CPAC and the Republican Leadership Conference — but it is a major problem from 2008 they are trying to correct.
Finally, the Paul camp realizes that there needs to be more attention to the nuts and bolts of campaigning. This is especially true in the early states, where contenders not named Romney are going to have to do well to sustain any kind of momentum. It is hard to stay dedicated to the campaign trail if you are constantly running back to Washington to cast votes, except for sojourns to college campuses to talk about the Fed.
By abandoning his House seat, Paul hopes to put all his money, attention, and personnel into the presidential race. That frees up time, resources, and staff for campaigning. Even if they fall short, they figure they can gain a wider audience for Paul’s message and mint new Ron Paul Republicans. Maybe they can even help elect like-minded candidates to join Rand Paul and Justin Amash in Congress.
When it comes to spreading the message, the Doctor is always in.