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Ron Paul And The Amplification Effect

CNN’s Political Ticker blog wonders if Ron Paul’s online support really means anything:

Right now “Ron Paul” is among the top-searched terms on Technorati, the popular site that tracks blog posts. According to the community Web site, Eventful, there are more than 16,000 outstanding “demands” for Paul to appear in cities across the country – that’s up 11,000 from just one week ago, leapfrogging him over Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-New York. Ron Paul video clips get plenty of play on YouTube and there is no shortage of blogs devoted to his support.

What do these numbers mean? How do you reconcile that support with the national poll numbers? In virtually every scientific national poll — generally regarded as the best measurement of public support for a political candidate — Paul registers, at most, between 1 and 2 percent. Do the debate numbers reflect something different than the national polls? Is it too early to tell?

I don’t think the offline polls are wrong. Instead, what we’re seeing is a kind of political “amplification effect” in which a small minority of activists are inflating the online presence of a candidate to make them look stronger than they actually are. I rather doubt that Rep. Paul really has much support, and his views are not representative of either the mainstream of the GOP or the mainstream of American politics. Instead, his popularity is based almost entirely on the ease of manipulating online “opinion polls” and spamming. While it’s an interesting strategy, it’s not particularly useful.

For one, this strategy doesn’t tend to do much other than annoy people. Spamming online polls tends to diminish the value of the currency — if an online poll starts consistently displaying results that are clearly out of line, it doesn’t mean that the online poll is right and conventional wisdom is wrong — in fact, it means quite the opposite. The same applies with spamming blog posts and other tactics — the last thing that a credible political candidate wants to do is annoy the very people that they need to impress. Paul’s online armies aren’t helping Paul at all, but marginalizing him as a candidate.

I would wager that the average online Paul supporter is supporting him simply because of his opposition to the war in Iraq — without knowing that on most issues, Paul is frequently to the right of the Republican Party mainstream. For instance, he’s advocated a jurisdiction-stripping law that would prevent the Supreme Court from making any ruling on abortion. His views are in the paleo-conservative Buchananite league, which includes his opposition to the war in Iraq. The support of Rep. Paul that is coming from “progressive” quarters is probably quite unaware of what the man really believes.

This amplification effect is the same sort of thing one sees with the “netroots” — by trying to manipulate online opinion, these political activists groups tend to engage in the sort of group polarization that doesn’t work well in the political quest to capture the vital center. American politics is all about convincing the unconvinced, not shoring up the base. These kinds of online political movements inevitably have little success simply because it isn’t enough to spam a few online polls — a politician has to have a true base of support. Faking it just isn’t enough.

Ron Paul may have attracted some following, but he’s not a viable candidate for the Presidency — and if his online followers knew more about the candidate than his position on Iraq and his pro-legalization stance on drugs, it’s likely they’d find that he’s not the man they think he is.

19 responses to “Ron Paul And The Amplification Effect”

  1. Tom says:

    If the recent rumors of huge amounts of additional fundraising (~$5 mm) are true, that seems to go against your arguement…unless the small minority have figured out how to spam currency as well.

  2. Matt says:

    This spamming charge is complete BS. The next person who claims this should actually prove it.

    Ron Paul stands for small government, lower taxes, and individual rights. He is clearly not a progressive in the left wing sense of the word, and that is precisely why he is so appealing. In my opinion, most Americans are craving fiscal conservatism and social liberalism and the online community has embraced him for his small government views. I don’t agree with his stance on abortion or immigration, but I agree with him philisophically, that the federal government has limited powers. The federal government is out of control and ruining this country by subverting the individualistic, freedom-loving culture that has made us so strong in the past.

  3. Michael says:

    I think you are underestimating the intelligence of Ron Paul supporters — online or otherwise. Technorati has said that his number one ranking is based on real support, not spammers or bots.

    So I think his online support is real, tangible and growing and a reflection of what’s happening off-line, he has even had an exponential increase in donations approaching $5million — I doubt those are spammers.

    His supporters know that he is not just about stopping the war in Iraq and legalizing drugs and besides it’s not that cut and dry. People don’t get annoyed when they get “spammed” about Ron Paul as you put it; instead it resonates with them deeply because the guy is spreading a liberating message of freedom and peace and inspiring people by being positive about the power of the American people to do the right thing, create wealth and make America great when left alone without government interference in every facet of their lives. That’s what America used to be about!

    On the other hand, neo-cons and supporters like Guilliani, McCain and the others don’t have anything positive or inspirational to offer. They only offer fear, more US debt and possibly a pre-emptive nuclear confrontation. Who wants that? If it was necessary fine; but we are quaking in our boots because of Iran: a nation that does not have a credible millitary capability to speak of and does not threaten our national security in anyway.

    We didn’t resort to this sort of out of control fear mongering when the Soviets targetted us with 40,000 nukes at the height of the Cold War.

    All of this is why i’ve been turned onto Ron Paul by those online “spammers” of his and will be voting for him all the way to the presidency. Go Ron Paul!

    Full disclosure: — My name is Michael, I am not a spammer, a bot or something else in between. I am a Ron Paul supporter and a believer in freedom, peace and justice.

  4. bret says:

    Better get used to it – the more people search for information about him, the more they like. This is certainly not some “minority” . . . this IS mainstream America. What’s the stat on internet in households in the US? 60%? Hardly a bunch of geeks in their parents’ basements . . .

    He IS the man everyone thinks he is. We all want to see an end to ALL WARS, because they do not work. Period.

  5. Dar says:

    I have become interested in the Ron Paul campaign and in Ron Paul’s ideas. When I get a chance I search the internet for the latest. When I see a poll I vote for Ron Paul. My actions represent only me. I read what Ron Paul has written over the years and the corpus of his work speaks for itself.

    I like Ron Paul whether he is a viable candidate or not. I laugh at such a consideration.

    However, he might very well be a viable condidate. Over and over again I see the same pattern among folks of many dispositions: A typical Ron Paul supporter sees something primary in the fundamental Ron Paul ideals. The Paul supporter agrees with most of his positions. The Paul supporter sees Ron Paul as being frank and self-controlled in those postions in which the supporter does not agree. This pattern might make Paul the choice for a majority of Americans and thus a good Republican nominee.

    Contributions might be an indicator. Ron Paul’s campaign got only a half million in the first quarter. It seems to have received a tenth of a million by morning after the Rudy-Ron snit. Recent estimates of cumulative donations range from 2.5 million to 4 or 5 million.

    What is the population of the Ron Paul growth? Online indicators are steadily growing, there is plateau seen yet.

    Each person can speak, can contribute, can sport a bumper sticker. That is individual action. Out of that grows emergence and collaboration. This emergence is the natural and default explanation for online popularity.

  6. Dar says:

    Whoops, I meant 1.5 million to 4 or 5 million for the Ron Paul 2008 contribution estimates.

  7. Mike says:

    Even if we accept your premise — which there is considerable argument about — your conclusion is flawed. I don’t think there is a mass exodus of Ron Paul supporters to the main candidates, and it doesn’t appear that Mike Huckabee, Tommy Thompson, Duncan Hunter, Tom Tancredo, and Sam Brownback are passing Paul in popularity, fund raising, or media attention.

    I think the people he is annoying are those already committed to one of the other candidates, not the ones still looking for a candidate to support.

  8. JOHN HOWARD says:

    The premises here is that:
    a) Ron Paul has few supporters
    b) The other candidates have many supporters
    c) Ron Paul’s few supporters can do more spamming than all those other supporters put together.

    It is time for someone to prove these stupid premises. 75% of Americans are now online. Perhaps Ron Paul’s little band of supporters is 75% of Americans.

  9. Jay Reding says:

    It is time for someone to prove these stupid premises. 75% of Americans are now online. Perhaps Ron Paul’s little band of supporters is 75% of Americans.

    Of course, that assumes that every American online supports Ron Paul… which is preposterous.

  10. JOHN HOWARD says:

    Jay Reding is quite right, so it would only be 75-95% (depending on poll) of the 75% – still a majority. Given the desparate attempts to stop Ron Paul from becoming well known, this is significant so early in the campaign.

  11. Jeff says:

    I believe that most who vote for RP online are legitimate and not spam. I offer no proof but, then again, neither do you in your argument to the contrary.

  12. Mark says:

    Whoa. The entire constituency of the U.S. Libertarian Party is chiming in on this one. Paul is right on about 10% of the issues and absurdly wrong on the other 90%. Of course, that’s still a better batting average than today’s Republican Party which is right about 1% of the time and wrong 99%.

  13. JOHN HOWARD says:

    So…Mark could tell us 9 important things that Ron Paul is absurdly wrong about and 1 important issue he is right about. Waiting…

  14. Nicholas MacDonald says:

    Hmm… even I’m supporting Ron Paul, even though I know he doesn’t have a chance in hell…

    … so maybe there is something to these numbers…

  15. It’s easy to understand the polls versus his online popularity. It’s called name recognition and the gatekeepers that are the main stream media.

    I can almost guarantee you his main demographic is from people like me in their 20 to 40s that have taken the time to investigate him via the internet. His name recognition will stay low unless people inspired by him convince others that they are not wasting their vote (which is hard to do).

    The substance of his issues is powerful to me and I’m a Republican. He is for border enforcement He is pro-life although he thinks it is a states issue which is a great compromise. He is for reducing our national debt via smaller government. Our national debt is going to eat our lunch some day. You cannot borrow forever.

    Regarding radical Islam, I wish he was not such an isolationist but I can look past that because we need to solve security issues within our country first. It makes no sense to secure Iraq’s borders if we cannot secure our own.

    He also has integrity and is a good man. I know where he stands. I know he understands the economic problems that people in the lower to middle class face. I know he is not some schmuck like Giuliani or he is so elitist that he does not even need the presidential salary such as Romney.

  16. dbassam says:

    Who do you think you are making comments about Ron Paul supporters AS IF you know who we are?! Dr. Paul’s online support is REAL. I am REAL and I am only one person. I don’t spam anything but I do go online almost everyday to see what is going on with my favorite candidate. Do you really think that there is a small nucleus of Paul supporters (and ONLY Paul supporters) who got together early on and decided to spend all their free time spamming online polls? No other candidate’s supporters thought to do the same thing?? Get real! Dr. Paul’s popularity on the internet stems from the simple observation that those who use the internet for political news generally prefer to select their own sources rather than have predigested ones thrown at them by the MSM. The Internet self selects for Libertarians and this is a much MORE likely reason for Dr. Paul’s popularity rather than your theory that a gang of Paul spammers are clogging up what would be otherwise a reasoned debate.

  17. Raymo says:

    I support ron paul. And I spammed a few dollars to him today so i must admit im guilty.

  18. Jay Reding says:

    Jay Reding is quite right, so it would only be 75-95% (depending on poll) of the 75% – still a majority. Given the desparate attempts to stop Ron Paul from becoming well known, this is significant so early in the campaign.

    Sorry, but the polls are right. Ron Paul supporters are about 1-2% of the electorate at best. Now, that’s still probably a few million people, but in politics, that just doesn’t cut it.

    The idea that everyone’s on the Paul bandwagon is another aspect of the amplification effect — specifically incestuous amplification. A candidate who assumes that everyone secretly supports him (or her) isn’t going to do what’s necessary to actually earn that support — and those candidates tend to lose.