Ron Paul is surging in the Republican presidential race. Just not among Republicans.
The Texas congressman is leading some polls in Iowa and is in a tie for second in New Hampshire. A candidacy once dismissed as sideshow is now being taken very seriously; the front page of Monday's Des Moines Register featured a huge spread under the headline "COULD RON PAUL WIN?"
Given Paul's views on the Fed, the gold standard and social issues, not to mention his isolationist foreign policy, the polls have left some politicos wondering whether Republican voters have somehow swerved off the rails. But there's another question that should be asked first: Who are Ron Paul's supporters? Are they, in fact, Republicans?
In an analysis accompanying his most recent survey in Iowa, pollster Scott Rasmussen noted, "Romney leads, with Gingrich in second, among those who consider themselves Republicans. Paul has a wide lead among non-Republicans who are likely to participate in the caucus."
The same is true in New Hampshire. A poll released Monday by the Boston Globe and the University of New Hampshire shows Paul leading among Democrats and independents who plan to vote in the January 10 primary. But among Republicans, Paul is a distant third -- 33 points behind leader Mitt Romney.
In South Carolina, "Paul's support is higher among those who usually don't vote in GOP primary elections," notes David Woodard, who runs the Palmetto Poll at Clemson University.
In a hotly-contested Republican race, it appears that only about half of Paul's supporters are Republicans. In Iowa, according to Rasmussen, just 51 percent of Paul supporters consider themselves Republicans. In New Hampshire, the number is 56 percent, according to Andrew Smith, head of the University of New Hampshire poll.
The same New Hampshire survey found that 87 percent of the people who support Romney consider themselves Republicans. For Newt Gingrich, it's 85 percent.
So who is supporting Paul? In New Hampshire, Paul is the choice of just 13 percent of Republicans, according to the new poll, while he is the favorite of 36 percent of independents and 26 percent of Democrats who intend to vote in the primary. Paul leads in both non-Republican categories.
"Paul is doing the best job of getting those people who aren't really Republicans but say they're going to vote in the Republican primary," explains Smith. Among that group are libertarians, dissatisfied independents and Democrats who are "trying to throw a monkey wrench in the campaign by voting for someone who is more philosophically extreme," says Smith.
Paul tops the field when pollsters ask Republicans which candidate they are certain not to support. "When you ask people which candidate they are least likely to vote for, Ron Paul is pretty high, because most Republicans here really don't want to vote for him," says Smith. "His support is not coming, by and large, from Republican voters."
What's true in New Hampshire is also the case in South Carolina, where Paul is 28 points behind Gingrich in the most recent Palmetto Poll. "The economic positions of libertarians are popular here, but Paul's positions on gay marriage, abortion, illegal immigration, and national defense are all antithetical to South Carolina's conservative culture," says Woodard. "About 13 percent of the GOP primary electorate are military veterans, and they don't want to bring everyone home. We have a strong pro-life network, and it is knit into the Republican Party at its roots, and the amendment declaring marriage to be something between a man and a woman won with over 70 percent of the vote in South Carolina."
Non-Republicans are sure to vote in all three early GOP contests. Iowa requires that caucus participants be registered Republicans, but anyone can show up on caucus night, register, and vote. In New Hampshire, so-called "undeclared" voters of any stripe can participate in the GOP primary. And South Carolina's GOP contest is open to all. Wherever Paul's final total, it will reflect lots of non-Republican votes.
Of course, next November's general election is open, too, and the Republican nominee will needs significant non-GOP support. But if Paul were the nominee, he would likely lose lots of Republicans, along with independents, and all of the Democrats who cast mischief votes on his behalf. Even his own supporters don't view him as having the best chance to beat Barack Obama.
There will be a lot written in coming weeks about Paul's role in the Republican Party. It's important to remember that a large part of his support isn't coming from Republicans.
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.