The GOP's third-party nightmare scenario

A poll shows Ron Paul doing shockingly well as an independent candidate. What would make him take the plunge?

Published November 17, 2011 1:17PM (EST)

U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, speaks during the Iowa Republican Party's Straw Poll, Saturday, Aug. 13, 2011, in Ames, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)   (AP)
U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, speaks during the Iowa Republican Party's Straw Poll, Saturday, Aug. 13, 2011, in Ames, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall) (AP)

You may have heard that Buddy Roemer is running for president. You also may never have heard of Buddy Roemer at all. He boasts a political resume -- three terms in Congress and one as governor of Louisiana -- that's more impressive than that of many of his GOP rivals, but he's been denied a spot in every single debate this year.

This treatment is doubly galling for Roemer when you consider the absurd fluidity of this year's GOP race -- how many different candidates  have zoomed from single digits to the head of the pack at some point? -- and the major role that the debates have played in swinging mass opinion within the party. So it's probably not surprising that, with his party intent on denying him vital exposure, Roemer is now threatening to end his bid for the nomination and to launch an independent campaign for the general election.

“If I’m going to be shut out of every debate, I suppose that’s something I’m going to look at,” he told the Portsmouth (NH) Herald on Wednesday. “I’m a proud Republican, but I’m a prouder American. This is not about my party, this is about my nation."

In theory, Roemer could be poised to pull off the ultimate revenge. As I've written before, 2012 looks like it will be that rare election year when the conditions that are most conducive to a credible third-party candidacy are present -- high economic anxiety that saps public confidence in an incumbent president and broad concerns about the opposition party and its candidate. So maybe Roemer could tap into the pool of voters who want Obama out but have serious reservations about the GOP and spoil what for Republicans seems like a golden opportunity to win back the White House.

In reality, of course, this probably won't happen -- because he's been shunned by the GOP, Roemer would likely be just as anonymous as an independent candidate. But Roemer's third-party flirtation is a reminder of another potential spurned candidate revenge scenario that the GOP should probably be much more worried about: What if Ron Paul decides to run as an independent?

There are some obvious incentives for Paul to do this. For one, it's an article of faith among Paul loyalists that he'd be well on his way to the GOP nomination right now if the party's leaders and the media weren't actively trying to suppress his message; so if he falls short in the primaries and caucuses next year, they will be unlikely to conclude that the result was the product of a fair process. Plus, while the GOP of the Tea Party-era has moved in Paul's direction on some economic issues, the ultimate nominee is bound to frustrate him on a host of topics, particularly on foreign policy. And with the 76-year-old Paul set to retire from Congress next year anyway, it's not like he'd have much to lose by mounting a third-party bid -- something, don't forget, that he did once before, back in 1988.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released last week showed the libertarian congressman receiving 18 percent of the vote in a race against Barack Obama and Mitt Romney -- a number that came mainly at Romney's expense. In a two-way trial heat, Obama led Romney by 6 points, 49 to 43 percent. But that margin doubled when Paul was tossed in, with Obama opening a 44-to-32 advantage over Romney. Notably, Paul fared much better than another potential third-party candidate, Michael Bloomberg, who netted only 13 percent.

Granted, this is just one very early survey, and history shows that third-party candidates tend to lose support as Election Day approaches. For instance, then-Rep. John Anderson peaked at 24 percent in a spring 1980 poll against Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, but he ended up winning just 7 percent. Still, Paul has a die-hard following that will stick with him no matter what (and pour real money into his coffers through small-dollar donations), and he's a big enough national name that he could emerge as a suitable protest vehicle for some of the non-ideologues who wish to vote against both Obama and the GOP. Plus, if he were to run as an independent, the media would immediately grasp the potential significance of his campaign -- another Ralph Nader situation! Coverage would not be nearly as hard to come by for Paul as it would be for Roemer.

Several times recently, Paul has been asked the third-party question, and while he hasn't expressed much enthusiasm for the idea, he hasn't ruled it out either. This makes sense: He's actually enjoying some very good news in recent GOP polling, pulling into what amounts to a four-way tie for the lead in Iowa and claiming a distant second place (with 17 percent) in New Hampshire. For a variety of reasons, Paul may end up faring much better in next year's GOP contests than he did in '08; there's even some talk now that he might eke out a win in Iowa if a few things break his way. Plus, this time around, he's been invited to every debate -- a measure of respect he wasn't afforded last time. So there's no reason to bolt the party, or even to talk about bolting the party, right now.

But the end of January might be different. The GOP nomination could essentially be settled by then. Let's say it is, and that Romney is on course to grab it. But let's also say that Paul is coming off of a near-miss in Iowa, a respectable second place finish in New Hampshire, and solid double-digit showings in South Carolina and Florida. Those would be encouraging results for him, and he'd have three choices: He could keep pressing his case in the rest of the Republican primaries, collecting a few delegates while the media tunes him out and focuses on Romney's V.P. options; he could drop out and return to the House to finish out the final year of his political career; or he could thrust himself into the general election as a third-party candidate and probably receive even more media attention than he's getting now. That third option probably makes Republicans just a little uneasy right now.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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