Ron Paul is a 72 year old ten-term Texan Congressman who’s running for President.
He hails from the libertarian wing of the Republican party – and indeed, in 1988, contested the presidential election for the Libertarian party. He finished a distant third.
This time round, as a straight up Republican, he barely figures in state or national polling, but consistently places there or thereabouts in local straw polls and caucuses. And the other day, on Guy Fawkes night, he broke the single-day GOP fundraising record.
The fact that most of the $4.2 million that poured in came from individual online donors won’t surprise those who have been following the Paul campaign. But, astonishingly, neither the candidate nor his official campaign had anything to do with it. The fundraising was organised by a couple of Paul supporters who set up a website feauturing a video of Paul highlights with a stirring soundtrack (Aerosmith’s ‘Sweet Emotion’ followed by Coldplay’s ‘Fix You’ – Ron’s going to fix America geddit…) in the background. This (frankly, pretty amateur) effort raised $4.2 million for a candidate who (no offence Ron) doesn’t have a chance next November.
Paul’s power online is amazing. Ignoring for a minute the fundraising, you need only take a look at virtually any political chat board or comment page following a presidential campaign related article or video – those Paul-iacs are everywhere! Amongst Republicans, Paul has the most Facebook supporters and Myspace friends. His YouTube videos have been watched more than anyone else’s – even including the Democrats. And, although there are ways to mess with these statistics, Paul’s official online HQ attracts by far the most traffic of all the presidential campaign sites.
How the internet is changing the way campaigns are run is one of the hot issues of this election cycle. The simple truth is that we don’t yet know the web’s potential in this field. Almost all the candidates have made concerted efforts online (much more so than in 2004), but as yet, people don’t vote throught their computers – online activism has to have an offline result.
How do you take something so inherently decentralised as the internet and make it work with the straightjacket messaging techniques of modern political campaiging? Can you? Is this even the right way of approaching the issue?
Katherine Seelye in the New York Times has recently written on this – and suggests that, rather than Ron Paul harnessing the internet, the ‘internet has harnessed him.’ There may be some truth in this, but the problem is that we don’t yet know whether being harnessed is a good or bad thing. Without his online support Paul would already be finished. With his web-based converts in tow he has a chance to influence the results in the early primary states (specifically New Hampshire). I know which position I’d rather be in.
The bottom line at the moment, however, is that it isn’t the supporters that give Paul credibility (they can very easily be dismissed as crazies). It’s the money. The money is providing the platform for Paul to speak – (We can’t not invite him to a debate, he raised so much money…)
The downside is that when Paul speaks, people don’t hear him talk about ideas and issues – they’re still too busy thinking ‘Wow, there’s the guy who raised so much money…’ For someone as earnest as Ron Paul it must be absolutely galling.