Paul's poll numbers award him less than 2 percent of the vote among Republican candidates, and he was unceremoniously excluded from an Iowa debate in June organized by a tax watchdog group that happens to share his political views. Even otherwise flattering articles consign his candidacy to "the realm of dreams, not practical politics."
On the Internet, however, this courtly Texas obstetrician-turned-politician has developed a towering presence that has left his Democratic and Republican rivals largely in his shadow.
Paul, 71, enjoys about 160,000 mentions on Digg.com, more than the next four most popular candidates combined. Alexa.com's statistics show Paul's Web site with a narrow lead over all the Democratic candidates and a sizable one over his fellow Republicans. Similarly, a report by Hitwise puts Paul's Web site ahead of other GOP candidates in terms of popularity.
The libertarian-minded Republican enjoys a hefty lead in two unscientific online polls: 56.3 percent in one hosted by the conservative group FreedomWorks.com, and 56 percent in a poll created by GOPstrawpolls.com, with undeclared candidate Fred Thompson coming in second at 18.7 percent. Paul is Technorati's most searched-for term, in front of stalwart contenders such as "iPhone" and "Paris Hilton," and recently reclaimed the spot after briefly falling behind a Puerto Rican singer with the undeniable advantage of having a sex tape on the loose. He's a close second to Barack Obama (and far outpaces Hillary Clinton) on Eventful.com's list of in-demand politicians, and, as The New York Timesnotes, is the most "friended" Republican on MySpace.com.
For his part, Paul attributes his online popularity to a set of beliefs that resonates with a younger crowd. "The whole message seems to be very attractive to young people," he said in a recent interview. "I think they like to be left alone. When I talk about Internet privacy and no taxes, I think they understand it."
Another factor is Paul's vote against the war in Iraq and his opposition to military action against Iran, making him unique among Republican candidates (and a rarity even among Democrats, after Obama reiterated during a debate that he would not rule out a nuclear strike against Iran). "Young people I think very naturally are opposed to the war that's going on," Paul said. "Soon they're going to turn 18."
This is not a new position: Paul also opposed the United States' first war against Iraq, and the war in Kosovo as well. His political views are broadly libertarian, which means supporting ideas like free markets (less regulation), individual rights (junk the Patriot Act), lower taxes (eliminate the IRS), and civil libertarianism (legalize marijuana).
An instinctive suspicion of governmental intrusions into regulating technology is a big reason for Paul's popularity in geek circles, which have long been irritated by laws like the Communications Decency Act and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. (One wag has quipped: "Libertarianism and Internet geeks go together like Guantanamo Bay and daily beatings.")
Paul hasagainst federal efforts to censor sexually explicit Web sites--a stance that nearly cost him his re-election bid last November when his Democratic rival cited those votes to argue that Paul was soft on porn. Paul, sometimes known in Washington as "Dr. No," risked opprobrium from fellow Republicans by voting against a law last year to restrict Internet gambling and has also opposed targeting the video game industry and giving federal police more Internet surveillance powers.
Paul on tax issues
Congressman Ron Paul, a Republican presidential hopeful and prominent anti-tax advocate, discusses Net taxes.
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He received the highest score in the U.S. Congress, 80 percent, in CNET News.com's. Clinton received a 33 percent score, Obama 50 received percent, Joe Biden received 38 percent, John McCain received 31 percent, Sam Brownback received 53 percent, and Dennis Kucinich received 53 percent.
The same supporters who have propelled Paul into an online lead have, however, drawn complaints for being what might be charitably described as overly single-minded.
The community-driven news site Digg.com has probably been the hottest flashpoint, with some readers complaining that Paul fans are unreasonably stuffing the site with articles about his candidacy. One example from last month: "Many of these stories are really, really, really boring. And I am a political junkie." There have been complaints of a "semi-organized effort by Paul supporters to promote him on Digg" and the creation of a "buryronpaul" blog.
Another explanation of his Digg presence--a Ron Paul video was the second-most popular article over the weekend--is that it reflects that many Internet users are drawn to Ron Paul's candidacy. And, as Paul's supporters have argued, supporters of other presidential candidates have plenty of reasons to manufacture Digg-related criticisms.