Predicting electoral politics is a mug's game, which seems to rely as much on luck as any kind of skill, knowledge or learning. Likewise, smugness isn't a very attractive emotion. Despite, this I'm trying hard not to just feel a tiny smidgen of pleasure that something I wrote in early May, when I asked whether Ron Paul could be the Howard Dean of '08, seems to have come to pass in recent days.
If you've been following events from the other side of the Atlantic, you will know that Paul's November 5th "Guy Fawkes" fundraising drive is one the most if not the most successful successful fundraising day in American political history (this depends on who you believe - plenty of Paul supporters are saying it is the best, whilst MSNBC are claiming Hillary Clinton's $6.2 million day at the end of June is in fact still the record. There is certainly a general consensus that Paul broke the GOP all-time record).
So what is going on? First thing's first - the jury is still very much out the significance of this fundraising or what it says about the size of Ron Paul's support base. Andy commented on my original post way back in May, suggesting that the noise the Paul supporters were making was disproportionate to their actual number - and this suspicion still remains. Recently, for example, right-leaning political blog Red State banned newly registered users from "pimping Ron Paul". Whilst Paul's fundraising achievements are undoubtedly impressive, it could still be the product of a relatively small number of activists, at least in comparison with the level of political support that is actually required to become a serious challenger to the frontrunners for the nomination. However, what the money might do is give the Paul campaign the capacity to reach out - ironically via television advertising - to a far greater number of potential voters. That might be the real achievement of his Internet activist base.
I would also recommend this really excellent blog post by Republican political consultant Patrick Ruffini. It makes a couple of arguments. Firstly, it argues that there are two distinctive forms of Internet fundraising. Email-based fundraising, where messages are sent out to lists are necessarily top-down and hierarchical. As a result, this strategy is favoured by mainstream candidates on both sides. In contrast, the tactics employed by the Dean campaign in 2003/2004 and Paul in 2007 (and to a lesser degree Mick Huckabee) are about decentralisation. They rely on entrepreneurial activists, acting independently of the campaign through blogs and online networks, but also require a willingness on the part of candidates and their campaign managers to cede some control.
Ruffini then goes on to make a provocative and very interesting claim - that it is the Republicans who are making the running in decentralised Internet campaigning in 2007/2008, whilst Democrats are strictly adhereing to a top-down model. This claim is unusual, because it seems to fly in the face of a lot of established wisdom (or at least wisdom that has become established since 2004) - namely that it is the Democrats who are good at the Internet, and the GOP lag lightyears behind them.
I certainly see the point that Ruffini is making, and I can think of one explanation as to why it might be accurate. If we think back to the Dean campaign in 2003/2004, a large proportion of its success was oppositional. Dean was unusual in the field, as he was speaking out aggressively against the Bush administration and the Iraq war. In contrast, his opponents were, at that time at least, all supportive of the invasion of Iraq - a position largely at odds with the Democratic base. Dean fed off the dissatisfaction towards the party's elites this created amongst activists. Fast-forward to now, and the general impression amongst Democrats - the odd Hillary-hater aside - seems to be a warm feeling towards most of the candidates running for the Presidency. A common refrain I have read on message boards is Democrats talking about how they are spoilt for choice and how more than one of their candidates would make a fine nominee. In contrast, a recurring message amongst Republicans is one of disappointment and uncertainty. There is no natural candidate in the field that seems to be invigorating the party-base. Indeed, this seems to be at least part of the reason why Giuliani candidacy is standing up better than many people had predicted (please see my previous comments about predictions being a mug's game, but I still strongly suspect Giuliani will not be the Republican nominee). But it does seem that politics abhors a vacuum. In 2004, Dean was able to fill that gap for Democratic activists. This time around, the gap is on the Republican side, and it seems that Ron Paul is taking on the role.
But I also have one problem with Ruffini's analysis too, which seems a little bit mechanistically partisan (a point that he himself implicitly acknowledges in his next post). After all, is it really fair to even think of Ron Paul as a Republican? He actually ran for the Presidency as a Libertarian in 1988, and now, following his fundraising exploits, there is talk that he might go for another third-party run in 2008. Furthermore, his principles and political ideology can hardly be described as being instep with the recent history of the Republican party (anti-foreign interventionism, in favour of a minimal state and balanced budget, against a gay marriage constitutional amendment, and, on libertarian grounds, against an anti-flag burning constitutional amendment, just to list some issues). But even more importantly, we have to ask whether the people supporting and giving money to him are even really Republicans in a meaningful sense? If we doubt they are (and I think there are good reasons to), it might be more appropriate to think of Paul's campaign as an example of Internet-fuelled entryism, rather than evidence of a new Republican Internet success story.