The attention devoted to the Iowa caucus has been inversely proportional to its importance in the presidential nominating process. This is partly a function of the media’s obsession with the horse-race aspect of American politics, which favours that day’s latest poll numbers and micro-developments over analysis of substantive issues and the broader campaign narrative. But the caucus has a mediocre record in actually selecting candidates. Recall that in 2008, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee (remember him?) won the contest and in 1988 televangelist Pat Robertson defeated then-Vice President (and future president) George HW Bush. The caucus system itself is something of a scandal; it is not a secret ballot but rather a uniquely Midwestern shaming ritual in which citizens must spend hours on end “caucusing” among themselves until, via a process of elimination, they have decided upon a candidate.
It is for this reason that Texas Congressman Ron Paul has emerged as a potential winner of the caucus. No one with any political sense thinks that the arch-libertarian—a man who supports the legalisation of hard drugs and prostitution, opposes the 1964 Civil Rights Act which outlawed racial discrimination in private business, and whose idea of foreign policy is not to have one—will win the nomination. His supporters, however, are rabid, almost cult-like, in their devotion to the man, a consequence, as I’ve argued elsewhere, of the American libertarian creed, obsessed as it is with intellectual “consistency” rather than the dirty business of political compromise. The rehearsal of bigoted and conspiratorial content contained in the newsletters he published for two decades (which I found, and reported on, four years ago) has not made a dent in his support, which should tell you everything you need to know about Iowa’s Republican primary voters.
Paul may very well win in Iowa and do well next week in the New Hampshire primary, a state that has always had a place in its heart for libertarians. But the Paul train will be stopped in the next contest, South Carolina, which is more traditionally Republican and heavily populated by military veterans, who won’t take kindly to Paul’s conspiratorial view of America being the root of world evil. Paul is not running for re-election as a congressman, and has thus far refused to outright rule out a run as a third-party candidate. Should he do so, he will open himself to even more scrutiny about his role as publisher of his highly questionable newsletters, which continues to be an issue because he has yet to provide a coherent answer to his role in the publications. His reputation would be further (and rightly) maligned, and he would take whatever chance the Republicans have of capturing the White House down with him.
James Kirchick is a contributing editor for The New Republic and a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.