Republican presidential long shot Ron Paul's passionate online supporters face a critical challenge in Saturday's Iowa straw poll: translating their online energy into success in the offline political process.
The Texas congressman's online prominence has already garnered him heightened attention in the world of traditional media -- The New York Times Magazine recently ran an extensive profile of Paul and his quixotic campaign, and he's enjoyed a blitz of national television appearances.
The question this weekend is whether the decentralized passion and organizational ability that his supporters have demonstrated online will translate into political action that will build the candidate's political capital in the offline world.
The crucial event for some Republicans this Saturday is the straw poll in Ames, Iowa, where up to 40,000 people are expected to show up. State Republican Party officials hold the all-day, county fairlike event in years when there's no incumbent Republican president, and it's widely viewed as a political thresher that culls weaker candidates from the presidential race.
Indeed, former Wisconsin governor and Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson has said he will drop out if he doesn't perform well. The poll is far from scientific -- candidates try to stuff the ballot box by purchasing tickets for their supporters to attend the event, at $35 a pop, and by providing them with food, transportation and entertainment. In addition, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Arizona Sen. John McCain aren't participating in the process. Neither is unofficial presidential hopeful Fred Thompson -- though all these candidates are on the straw poll ballot.
Nevertheless, participating in the straw poll and doing well "is a way of demonstrating one's support among the activist base in the party," says Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University. "It's about the ability to mobilize and turn out supporters -- generally, a candidate who has an intense base of supporters has an advantage here."
Paul's offline poll numbers remain low. Just 2 percent of Iowans surveyed at the end of July said they would vote for him in the 2008 Republican caucus among the field of current GOP presidential candidates, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Sunday. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney still leads the pack with 26 percent of Iowans saying they would pick him.
But political commentators and pundits are keeping an eye on Paul's campaign, since his success Saturday could tip the balance for second-tier presidential candidates.
"I think that's what's the most fascinating ... how Ron Paul will do," says Julie Germany, deputy director of George Washington University's Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet. "His supporters have overwhelmingly been on the internet," where blog rankings, YouTube videos and enthusiastic forum participation make his support appear "two or three times what it really is."
The numbers appear to bear Germany's statement out. One way of judging the strength of a presidential campaign is by its fundraising patterns, Germany notes. Small and consistent donations are important. Impressed by Paul's online support, pundits such as Republican e-campaign strategist Patrick Ruffini had predicted that the congressman would raise around $4 million for the second quarter. Instead, he raised $2.4 million. That doesn't seem to deter Ruffini. This time around, he's predicting that Paul will place second in Ames.
Ahead of Saturday's event, Paul's campaign staffers are drumming up support both online and off. They sent out fundraising e-mails this week, and volunteers are urged on his campaign website to donate either time or money to help turn out supporters.
And like his rivals, Paul has spent the week crisscrossing the state, introducing himself and making himself familiar to Iowans. His campaign has also released one television advertisement and three different sets of radio spots -- the television ad is viewable on YouTube.
Donations have enabled the campaign to buy 800 tickets for Paul supporters to attend and vote in the Iowa straw poll. In contrast, his more well-funded rivals have bought thousands of tickets to give to potential supporters, and they've organized buses to transport supporters to the event, as well as providing free food and entertainment. Paul's supporters are organizing transport for themselves through Meetup and Craigslist.
Some Paul supporters have even discussed using Romney's largesse to get to the poll this Saturday.
For their part, Paul's campaign officials are maintaining an upbeat tone as they try to manage expectations for Paul's performance.
"We just want to have a respectable turnout," says Jesse Benton, Paul's communications director. "We're certainly working hard and activating our grass-roots network ... (but) in the end, it's not this cataclysmic event for us."