The major media’s treatment of Ron Paul following his near-tie for first at the Iowa straw poll was so over-the-top that Jon Stewart (hardly a tea-bagging libertarian Fed-hater) called foul, as well as Politico’s Roger Simon (again, not himself a Paulian).
In response, we’ve seen the usual non sequiturs. “Oh none of this proves that the poll was rigged,” “There’s no bias, people just don’t think he can win,” “Either show me video with lizard people smoking cigars, or shut up,” etc.
The one actual bit of analysis I’ve seen is from Salon’s Steve Kornacki. Don’t get me wrong, Kornacki’s arguments are absurd–as we’ll see in a minute–but at least he is trying to explain why the Iowa straw poll is so signficant for everyone but Ron Paul. Let’s be clear: That’s the case that the media’s defenders need to make. If the media never paid attention to the straw poll, then their dismissal of Paul’s near-tie for first would be fine. Yet that’s not what happens. The straw poll is potent enough to get Pawlenty to drop out, or to make Sean Hannity say to Mike Huckabee after he came in 2nd in the Iowa straw poll back in 2007:
HANNITY:…Governor, look, there were two winners yesterday. Obviously, Mitt Romney had a huge day. He went for it, wanted to win, and he won by a big margin. You came in second and surprised a lot of people, a very strong showing. What happened? What was the dynamic?
FORMER GOV. MIKE HUCKABEE, R-ARK.: People were responding to the message. You know, it really was a David-Goliath moment. We went out there with a smooth stone and a sling and a whole lot of hardy volunteers, some of whom drove 600 miles to be there. It was truly incredible. And we had very little money, but we had the message, the fair tax, consistent conservative views on things like sanctity of life. People responded to that. Newt Gingrich last week had said that I was a top-tier candidate, and I think Saturday validated that.
HANNITY: You know, I would actually agree with you. I would expect, Governor, that your poll numbers will be up significantly as a result of this. There’s some momentum building here. Does it make it different because Rudy Giuliani wasn’t there, Senator McCain wasn’t there? Does that take a little bit of the victory away, or do you think it’s just as good as if they were?
(In fairness, when I was trying to come up with a Jon Stewart-esque double standard with Hannity on this year’s result, all I could find was him telling a caller to stop making fun of Ron Paul supporters. Note, Hannity didn’t say, “Ron Paul’s strong showing in Ames means he got a lot of momentum now…” like he did with Huckabee, but I did want to note that he was civil in the above clip.)
So now we see what Kornacki has to do. He must explain why a strong showing by Ron Paul in Ames means nothing, but a similar performance by (say) Pawlenty would have revealed information about the mood of the electorate. Even though I will criticize what Kornacki is going to say, at least he’s trying to justify the double-standard, as opposed to ignoring the actual claims of the Ron Paul supporters. Here we go:
[T]he straw poll isn’t really about the literal order of finish. It means different things to different candidates for different reasons, and its main function has long been to help winnow or otherwise clarify the GOP field. As Jonathan Bernstein put it, it’s “an unusually visible event during the invisible primary.” Thus, this year’s straw poll wasn’t about all of the GOP candidates; it was about two particular candidates who chose to (or were forced to) contest it aggressively and who had something very specific to prove.
One of them was Tim Pawlenty, who spent the last year trying and failing to find traction in early state polls (and with GOP donors) before making the straw poll his do-or-die test. When, after pouring considerable time, money and organizational muscle into the event, he managed to grab just 13 percent of the vote, Pawlenty flunked his own test, which is why he dropped out of the race on Sunday.
The other candidate with something to prove was Bachmann, who has shown surprising strength in Iowa polling, vaulting into the lead in the late spring. Given the crucial role that conservative Christians, Bachmann’s natural constituency, play in the Iowa GOP, this prompted serious talk that she might actually win the caucuses this winter — then wreak serious havoc in subsequent contests, and maybe (under a remote but not entirely implausible scenario) walk off with the nomination. This made the straw poll a crucial test for Bachmann: Could she put together an organization capable of harnessing the grass-roots energy she has sparked and delivering a victory? Or would we find out that her campaign really doesn’t have its act together, and that her star isn’t really that powerful? Her victory is further reason to believe she’s a serious caucus contender.
OK, fair enough, but so far this is just telling us what we already know: When it comes to other Republican contenders, the Iowa straw poll is a good indication of their organizational ability, their fundraising, their appeal to crucial demographics, etc. So why don’t the above points apply to Ron Paul? If Bachmann’s performance proves she can harness “the grass-roots energy she has sparked” and that “she’s a serious caucus contender,” then why doesn’t Paul’s nearly identical outcome prove the same of him?
Now let’s talk about Paul, who also put a major effort into the straw poll. But unlike Bachmann and Pawlenty, he didn’t really have much to prove. Why? Because the political world already knows that Paul has an army of unusually loyal and dedicated supporters who are willing to show up in large numbers at events like the straw poll and producing impressive-seeming vote totals for their candidate.
Ah, now we see the difference! We already know that Ron Paul gets people fired up to support him. So really, Iowa was significant for Michele Bachmann, because it proved she was as good a campaigner as Ron Paul.
Wait, Kornacki offers some more nuance:
They’ve been doing this for years now. Remember when Paul won the straw poll at the 2010 CPAC conference? Or in 2011? His supporters are very good at this kind of thing, channeling their unique passion into “money bombs,” Internet poll victories, and strong performances at straw polls and other events where a devoted minority can have an outsize influence.
So by nabbing 27.65 percent on Saturday, Paul didn’t actually do anything to change the prevailing perception of his campaign and its appeal. Bachmann and Pawlenty faced legitimate questions about their ability to effectively organize for the straw poll. But no one doubted the Paul campaign’s skills in this regard. The key question about Paul’s campaign is one that the straw poll was never going to help answer: Can he build on his sizable (but ultimately limited) base of core supporters and develop mass appeal within the Republican Party?
Hold on a second. How can Kornacki say this is old news? As the quotes from Hannity point out above, in the last cycle Mitt Romney came in first in Ames, and Huckabee came in second. Back in 2007, Ron Paul only got 9 percent of the straw poll vote–which at the time I’m sure the major media took as confirmation that he was “just a niche candidate” and not in the top-tier, like the long-shot-turned-blockbuster Mike Huckabee.
As I say, I have to hand it Kornacki. At least he’s trying. He realizes that his own narrative makes no sense, and so he tries to plug the chink in his armor:
And while it’s true that Paul’s 2011 Iowa straw poll performance (27.65 percent) is far better than his 2007 showing (9 percent), it’s worth remembering that at the time of the ’07 event his army was just emerging (and learning how to manipulate events like it).
Everyone got that? The reason the pundits ignored Ron Paul back in 2007 was that he hadn’t yet developed his army. But now that his army just blew away everybody else except Bachmann, we can still ignore him, because we’re quite confident that he’s peaked. You see, Paul’s message of fiscal responsibility, peace, and the Constitution spread like wildfire from around November 2007 (to leave room for the shocking “moneybombs”) to about July 2011. But Salon’s pros assure us that he’s got no room left to grow, and that’s why it makes perfect sense that Ron Paul was on zero of the Sunday talk shows following his near-tie, and why CNN today at the airport had a segment on how Rick Perry pronounces “nuclear” compared to George Bush. (I’m not making that up.)
As far as “electability,” here is what RealClearPolitics has to say (as of early August 17, 2011). I’m looking at the RCP Average result for President Obama against a given Republican contender:
Obama beats Romney by 3.1%
Obama beats Paul by 10.7%
Obama beats Pawlenty by 10.7%
Obama beats Perry by 10.8%
Obama beats Bachmann by 11.2%
Obama beats Huntsman by 14.0%
Obama beats Cain by 14.7%
Obama beats Gingrich by 14.7%
Obama beats Palin by 17.5%
So if we exclude Pawlenty who just dropped out, Ron Paul is technically the second-best candidate the Republicans have to beat Obama in the general election. So c’mon Republican voters, follow your own logic! Put aside platitudes about balanced budgets, respecting the Constitution, blah blah blah. If you can’t bring yourself to vote for a guy who implemented government health care, then your only choice–strategically speaking–is to vote for Ron Paul in the primaries. Don’t do it because you (claim to) care about free markets, do it to beat Obama!
Last point, and sarcasm aside: I think we fans of Ron Paul need to admit to ourselves that there must be something to the whole “you guys are obnoxious” claim. I have noticed this type of thing when trying to argue with, say, proponents of the Fair Tax (or MMT). I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s something that drains your precious bodily fluids when you attempt such arguments, that you don’t necessarily have with other types of people. Obviously just because I lack the stamina to debate them for long stretches, doesn’t mean I’m right and they’re wrong. It does mean that in the interest of preserving my sanity, I try to limit such encounters.
So for some reason, this is the impression we are giving to people. I think Ron Paul supporters should take a cue from their hero. Dr. Paul didn’t go around whining about his unfair treatment; when people in the public eye do that, even if everything they say is valid, it sounds ridiculous.
Therefore, even though it is unequivocally true that Ron Paul is getting screwed by the major media, let’s not dwell on it. Let’s just keep spreading Dr. Paul’s revolutionary message of liberty, free markets, and peace. If we ignore the insults and the unfairness, evenhanded people like Jon Stewart will give us a break.