It's May 1988, and the slender 53-year-old obstetrician (and former four-term congressman) has just arrived at Seattle airport. Only three supporters are waiting. Later today, he'll address a handful of students at the University of Washington; tomorrow's speech at nearby Whitman College will draw 50. "The problem we have," he says, "is not having the opportunity to get the message out." In the end, he'll raise $2 million and win 0.4 percent of the popular vote. "Ron Paul is running for the presidency," the Los Angeles Times will report. "Not many people know that. Not many people care."
Not anymore. Two decades after his listless Libertarian bid, Paul, now back in Congress and campaigning as a Republican, has become a political phenomenon—a transformation that may signal a shift away from the two-sizes-fitall categories of "Democrat" and "Republican" and toward a more personalized, motley politics.
He may be America's first "long tail" candidate. Popularized by Wired editor Chris Anderson, the long tail is premised on the idea that before the Web, it wasn't always easy to find a deep selection of, say, literary fiction at the local bookstore beyond the few best sellers the big publishers were pushing. Mass culture still dominates, but retailers now realize they can also make money by selling an ever-expanding selection of less-popular niche products from the "long tail" of the culture to smaller numbers of people. It's the difference between Amazon.com's selling a million copies of "The Da Vinci Code," or selling just five copies each of 200,000 backlist titles. Either way, it moves a million books.
This idea is now playing a part in our politics, where Paul's recent rise reflects the same dynamics. In 1988 his libertarian message—reduce government at home, resist military meddling abroad, restore the gold standard—went unheard. Today, it's spreading quickly online and connecting activists across the country, a few people at a time. Paul may still be the longest of long shots. But he's a long shot who can lure 5,000 supporters to his rallies and more than triple his entire '88 war chest in a single $6.6 million day. That's a whole new level of high-passion, low-polling politics—and in a long-tail world, others are bound to follow. "Ron Paul is the harbinger," says Nick Gillespie, editor in chief of the libertarian magazine Reason. "Just as the major entertainment companies are producing far more varied and individualized fare, I think we're going to see more and more political candidates who are more interesting in and of themselves but deliver smaller and smaller numbers."
Over the decades, Americans have become increasingly unhappy about having to cram themselves into one of two "big box" parties. Seven of the last 10 elections were won with less than 51 percent of the vote; in three of the last four, no candidate won a majority. Today, two thirds of U.S. adults (and a full three quarters of 18- to 30-year olds) say they would consider voting for an independent candidate in the next election. The rise of Howard Dean (another anti-establishment Web phenom) and the recall of California Gov. Gray Davis mirrored this breakdown of consensus; 2008's fragmented Republican field is further proof. "The long tail is not the political center," economist Arnold Kling has said. "It is not a third party waiting to form. It is not a coalition. It is not a 'silent majority' of either the right or left. It is simply every variety of political belief that does not fit within the two major parties." As the Web allows niche voters to form communities, raise money and get heard, it's inevitable that the major-party machines will clash with—and ultimately accommodate—the individualized constituencies they're struggling to serve.
Unlike their predecessors, the next generation of niche politicians won't necessarily choose the third-party route. Instead, tomorrow's most successful narrowcasters will likely run as major-party candidates in the primaries, where widely seen debates and easy ballot access will bring exposure and credibility. (Think Tom Tancredo.) "You will get further inside the primaries than you will ever get as a third-party candidate," says Micah Sifry, author of "Spoiling for a Fight: Third-Party Politics in America" and cofounder of TechPresident.com, a site that tracks online politics. Don't expect one of these Facebook-friendly insurgents to move into the White House any time soon. America is still a majority-rule, winner-take-all country—online and off. But as they proliferate, their niche concerns and vocal supporters will demand unprecedented attention.
Is that necessarily a good thing? The risk, says Sifry, is that as it "becomes easier and easier to create salient, organized minorities" around key issues, "we may arrive at an even more stalemated politics, where every-one has enough of a voice to stymie everything." But Gillespie argues the reward is a more responsive government. "Being just a Republican or just a Democrat no longer gets at what people are about," he says. "In order for a Mitt Romney to gain traction in a traditional party, he's going to have to mine the more marginal candidates for ideas and support." Paulites, take heart. Sadly, the gold standard isn't coming back. But the days of "not having the opportunity to get the message out"? Those are gone for good, too.