Paul's Online Support Put to Offline Test
Today's Iowa straw poll isn't merely a test for Mitt Romney, who leads in Iowa in the latest Washington Post/ABC news poll and has easily outspent the rest of the GOP field.
It's also a test for the Paulites -- the undeniably loyal and undeniably Internet-savvy followers of Rep. Ron Paul. Indeed, on the ground in Ames today, the first thing you notice are the Ron Paul signs everywhere: They were along one of the exits coming from Des Moines and as we approached the straw poll grounds, the more evidence of Paul supporters we saw.
Give Paul credit. He got his troops here early. But, how many of them can vote in today's straw poll? The rules only permit Iowans to participate in the non-binding balloting, and first impressions suggest many of Paul's supporters may not qualify.
In the parking lot where many of the Paul supporters are holding signs, we spotted as many out-of-state license plates as Iowa plates. Walking into the arena, we asked one of the Paul supporters how far he'd come to be here. "Houston," he said. Passing two more, we asked, "where are you from?" "Kansas City," one man answered. Pointing to his friend, he added, "He's from Missouri."
Paul registers low in the national polls, but he has an Internet following that is passionate in its support for the Texas congressman. His YouTube videos are the most viewed of any presidential candidate -- yes, more than Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. He has more MySpace friends than Romney, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and former senator Fred Thompson combined. His online followers, many of them live-and-let-live libertarians, were essential to his second quarter fundraising haul of $2.37 million, which easily surpassed former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback.
And the big question on many a online political operative mind is: Can Paul translate all that online enthusiasm into offline results?
Five months before the Iowa caucuses, the straw poll is a non-binding test of a candidate's organizational mettle. Voters are scheduled to pack Iowa State University's Hilton Coliseum, in summer heat, to show their support. Paul's Iowa operation lags behind Romney's, no doubt. Paul just opened his headquarters in Iowa on Thursday, and his aides said the 400 or so members of his Iowa Meetup groups have been working the phones, passing out campaign literature and stuffing mailers in recent days. "We don't have any lofty expectations," Jesse Benton, Paul's spokesman, said. "We just want to prove that we can run with the pack."
To some Republican online political operatives, it does look like the Paulites are running with the pack. Patrick Ruffini, former head of the Republican National Committee's online department, views Paul's chances in Iowa optimistically,
"I think Paul could place as well as second in the straw poll, if the enthusiasm that he's generating online translates to actual bodies on the ground," Ruffini said. "If it doesn't, then you might begin to question the effectiveness of his online support. I mean, if he can't translate it in Ames, then where can you translate it?"
--Jose Antonio Vargas and Dan Balz, reporting from Ames, Iowa
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