Supporters of GOP presidential hopeful Ron Paul have mastered the art of gaining attention — and campaign dollars — on the Internet, but turning online successes into votes and victory could still prove challenging for the plucky candidate.
Congressman Paul shattered online fundraising records this week, raking in $4.3 million from 35,000 contributors in a single day, according to published reports. That’s nearly as much as he raised in the previous three months combined.
“The message is powerful and the level of frustration in this country that people are sick and tired of what they're getting,” Paul, a Libertarian-leaning Texan and fierce critic of the Iraq war tells MSNBC. “They don't like the war and they don't like the economy. And they like the answers that I've been giving.”
At last count, Paul had more campaign cash than Sen. John McCain of Arizona and five times as much as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. At his current pace, Paul could be on par with the fundraising efforts of GOP front-runners Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney heading into the Iowa caucuses in January, analysts predict.
Meanwhile, Experian’s Web traffic monitor HitWise shows Paul well ahead of all candidates — Democrat or Republican — with nearly 23 percent of the Web market share last week. Huckabee is a distant second at 15 percent, followed by Hillary Clinton at 14 percent.
Indeed, Paul’s early successes mirror those of 2004 Democratic candidate Howard Dean, a staunch war opponent who led the pack going into the primaries that year based in large part on a formidable Internet campaign.
Naturally, Paul and his supporters are hoping for a better outcome than Dean, who flamed out in the primaries, with Paul adding that the U.S. failure in Iraq is much clearer now.
“[Dean] didn't have a non-intervention foreign policy. I talk about policy overall," Paul tells the Associated Press.
Staying On Method
The recent burst of success says as much about Paul’s method as his message, say campaign insiders. Type “Ron Paul” into a search engine or look for him on social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, and the hits and mentions gush forth.
Blogs for and about Paul abound in cyberspace, thanks largely to the Internet savvy of his relatively small cadre.
The same Web efforts that are filling Paul’s war chest are also helping Paul lead the GOP field in several Internet polls. Online only polls by ABC News and MSNBC taken after the GOP debate in May showed Paul trouncing his opponents by double digits.
In more traditional polling last week, Paul had crept up to fourth place in the GOP hunt, with 7 percent, according a survey by SRBI Research for Saint Anselm College. That put him behind Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani and McCain, and showed him essentially tied with Huckabee and Fred Thompson.
The results, in turn, have Paul supporters and some political bloggers salivating over what they hope will be a big impact for Paul when the real voting begins.
Others aren’t completely sold.
“He could be a factor in New Hampshire, with same-day registration and the ability of voters to switch parties,” says Michael Cornfield, vice president of research and media strategy at 720 Strategies, and an adjunct professor in political management at George Washington University. “If McCain and [Sen. Barack] Obama wobble, Paul could affect the outcome in the race. He is starting to register in the offline world as well, the real world.
“Everything is relative to his standing in the polls and it is getting to the point now where it appears to be moving out of single digits,” says Cornfield.
But those are big ifs, points out Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University. “No one expects him to ride it to top-tier status, much less the nomination. But it does show that a niche candidate can get support from people from all over the country and play the game.
“We should not be surprised if be breaks out of single digits in New Hampshire, but I have a difficult time seeing him gather much momentum,” says Jillson. “He’s got an audience, he may hold it for a little while, but I don’t see it growing.”
Peter Greenberger, formerly an online strategist at New Media Strategies and a former Democratic political operative, said during an ABC News discussion on Internet campaigning earlier this year that Paul’s success is “evidence of something -- either passionate supporters, active supporters, or just one very savvy supporter who’s able to vote several thousand times.”
Many, like Jillson, see New Hampshire as the real test.
New Hampshire is a state tailor-made for Paul; voters have a history of supporting mavericks and rabble-rousers in the primary. And 40 percent of New Hampshire’s voters are registered as independents, making them eligible to vote in either party’s primary.
Paul has already launched $1.1 million worth of advertising in New Hampshire, the first substantial media buy of his campaign. Two 30-second spots went up the last week of October, the first of five that Paul intends to air in the state through December.
Dollars and poll numbers are no guarantee of success.
Witness the Iowa GOP straw poll last August. Paul enjoyed a series of positive stories leading up to that pay-to-play event to the point where national pundits were suggesting he could place as high as second. It didn’t happen.
Paul finished fifth with 9 percent of the vote. That was better than the eighth place and 2 percent he registered in an Iowa poll six days before, but hardly the breakout results of others like Huckabee, who finished second with 18 percent of the 14,302 votes cast.
That perceived failure had immediate impact. Paul’s name was omitted from most news coverage of the poll, including in the Washington Post – which did mention that Tommy Thompson finished sixth – one spot behind Paul. Unfair, perhaps, but typical of the hurdles Paul faces to get broader coverage and secure a more lasting impact, experts say.
Gaining an Edge
Paul’s turning to the Internet in search of that lasting impact is part of the logical evolution of politics, experts point out.
Political history is filled with candidates and supporters looking for ways to turn the newest communications technologies to their advantage. Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton lined up newspaper allies to garner support for their arguments, converting newspapers from commercial to political organs.
Radio was the next big thing, with Franklin Delano Roosevelt setting the bar on its effective use. Television followed, propelling presentable folks such as John F. Kennedy past more radio-friendly politicians like Richard Nixon.
And now, the Internet.
“You have to have an accurate sense of your potential audience,” Jillson says. “Paul knows that his receptive audience is much smaller, so you don’t spend money on a huge Web site. You craft it for your audience when they show up.”
Jillson said the trick is for politicians to realize that “this is something new, let’s master it more quickly than anyone else.”
For a nominee, like John Kerry in 2004, it can be used for a major fundraising blitz after winning Iowa or New Hampshire; for someone like GOP hopeful Rep. Tom Tancredo, the Web can “find those Americans for whome who immigration is the first and last issue,” Jillson says.
Beyond his Internet-savvy staff, Paul does have some unique advantages for any Web effort. Paul was the Libertarian nominee for president in 1988 and Libertarians are enthusiastic users and advocates of the Internet.
His positions supporting Internet freedom and opposing big government and the war in Iraq also hit key points among the Internet community, helping create what supporters tout as his “Internet juggernaut.”
The Next Big Thing
There are reasons why Paul – or a candidate like him – should be a factor. Research by the Pew Research Center earlier this year concluded that more Americans are relying on the Internet as a source of political news.
The Pew/Internet research study titled “Election 2006 Online” found that 15 percent of Americans rely on the Internet as their primary source of election news. That number is even higher in presidential election years, with 18 picking the Web in 2004.
The Pew Center expects almost 30 percent of Americans to get most of their election news from the Internet in 2008. The study found that even among those who tend to use mainstream media sources first, the Web is a valuable resource for learning more about candidates they are interested in.
So what does this mean for future presidential races? Jillson, Cornfield and others say if nothing else, Paul’s online campaigners will be remembered for bringing a new dimension to politics in the electronic age.
Paul has benefited from more visibility, more free media exposure and the ability to bank limited funds for when he needs a breakout moment.
His staff, more than most, has recognized the Internet as a key platform from which to run campaign strategy – something future tacticians can adapt for their use.
Cornfield says many people will do the calculations on the Paul impact based on the real returns, to “see if he has made a difference, even if it is a footnote to the story” of the presidential race.
“The world still revolves around television and door knocking,” he says. “We still have a long way to go before Internet politics is sort of driving results.”
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