Michael Tanner

The warnings are coming from the unlikeliest of places.

First Sarah Palin tells Fox News that “the worst thing that the GOP establishment can do is marginalize Ron Paul and his supporters.” Then that sentiment was echoed by Sen. Jim DeMint, speaking on The Laura Ingraham Show, when he warned that it would be to the party’s detriment to ignore Paul and his supporters. DeMint even gave permission for Paul to use the senator’s voice in a radio ad.

In the two Republican contests so far, Paul consistently won about 20 percent of the vote. Polls show that even in South Carolina, which is not considered hospitable territory for the Texas congressman, he is expected to take about one-sixth of the vote. It is very likely that he will reach the Republican convention with the second-highest number of delegates.

"What can Republicans do to keep Paul's supporters in the tent?"

Yet, large portions of the Republican party seem torn somewhere between reading him out of the party entirely and hoping that Paul and his supporters will quietly fade away.

Many of Paul’s detractors belittle his vote totals by pointing out that much of his support has come from non-Republicans. It is true that Paul won in both Iowa and New Hampshire among independents and people who had never before voted in a Republican primary. In New Hampshire, for example, roughly 63.5 percent of his vote came from independents.

But why is that a bad thing? Given that just 35 percent of voters are registered Republicans, it stands to reason that any GOP candidate is going to have to attract the votes of independents and possibly even disaffected Democrats. Moreover, at a time when many Republican voters are holding their nose in the voting booth, Paul’s supporters are nothing if not enthusiastic. Furthermore, Paul is probably the only Republican candidate who can eat into President Obama’s hold on the youth vote.

But that enthusiasm and those votes are not going to be easily transferred to the eventual Republican standard bearer. Worse, a potential Paul third-party candidacy, while unlikely, would almost certainly guarantee Obama’s reelection.

Michael Tanner

Michael D. Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, heading research into a variety of domestic policies with particular emphasis on health care reform, welfare policy, and Social Security. His most recent white paper, "Bad Medicine: A Guide to the Real Costs and Consequences of the New Health Care Law," provides a detailed examination of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and what it means to taxpayers, workers, physicians, and patients.