In a different post, I declared that Paul's ceiling is 15%. My prediction was too low since he's already gotten 21% in Iowa and 23% in New Hampshire. His libertarian platform may not play so well in the socially conservative south, but the rest of the country is pretty fertile ground.
Paul gave a great semi-victory speech after the New Hampshire primary. He's a good speaker in debates, interviews, and even sound bites. He doesn't suffer from many of the characterizations that plague other candidates. People don't see him as:
a Wall Street stooge, Wall Street raider, lobbyist, elitist, rich, dishonest, greedy, flip-flopper, philanderer, unethical, pompous, vindictive, opportunist, contemptible, theocratic, hypocritical, empty-suit, uptight, dumber than dirt, whiny, liar, insincere, or slick.His negative characteristics are usually variations on these: out-of-touch, dangerous to the GOP, crackpot.
If Paul ends up in a two-man race with Mitt Romney, we will all get to see what his ceiling is. But more important, the GOP will have a stark choice: they can embrace the candidate who actually follows their small-government ideals, or they can choose someone from Bush mold (but one who promises to do better on the finances).
With Romney polling at a national average of 34%, and Paul getting 12% to 20%, that leaves at least 46% who have to make that stark choice. Will Tea partiers, who were so outspoken on the constitution, gravitate to Paul? They should, if smaller government is a more important message than being the top military power in the world.
I don't think the Tea partiers are that pure. They may say they love the constitution, but they want to be top dog with no apologies. Because of this, I think Paul is close to his max at 23% in New Hampshire. He'll do better in some western caucus state, but over all, his ceiling is probably 30%. That's better than 8% in 2008, and it becomes the floor for 2016*. We shall see.
* That's not really the floor for 2016. But it's a pleasant idea that 30% of the Republican party would be honest in their small-government goals.