Paul's candidacy offers and interesting sociological/political case study. His is far from unique--every election has at least one, and some, like Ralph Nader and Ross Perot, go on to influence the election (as Paul may yet do). It doesn't really matter what their politics are--there are some common elements to all of them. Their rhetorical style is almost uniformly a cut-through-the-BS style. They can afford not to alienate and offend because first they have to attract attention. Therefore, Paul has been able to say things like this, from Sunday's Meet the Press:
MR. RUSSERT: How many troops do we have overseas right now?
REP. PAUL: I don't know the exact number, but more than we need. We don't need any.
MR. RUSSERT: It's 572,000. And you'd bring them all home?
REP. PAUL: As quickly as possible. We--they will not serve our interests to be overseas. They get us into trouble. And we can defend this country without troops in Germany, troops in Japan. How do they help our national defense? Doesn't make any sense to me. Troops in Korea since I've been in high school?
This typical Russert gotcha--trying to embarrass a candidate by seeing if he knows some stray fact--could sink a serious campaign. But Paul can dodge it easily by throwing it back in Russert's face: who cares? He ups the ante by saying he doesn't see how international troops help our national security. For casually-interested voters, this seems bracingly honest and fresh. Paul looks like a truth-teller, never mind that the truth he's offering is that he doesn't understand foreign policy.
Fringe candidates also have a kind of messianic hubris that allows them to turn their lack of experience and knowledge into the very thing that recommends them for the post. It's their anti-Washington cred.
Guys like this always attract a fervent fringe. They are seductive because they offer a simplistic, back-of-the-napkin sense of politics (which, after all, is all most voters have). It seems to transcend Washington. People who become supporters of these candidates--or at least the majority of the supporters, the ones who make the candidates a phenomenon--are usually political novices with an unsophisticated sense of how laws get made. And this is why the simple appeal attracts--in their ignorance, they think a guy like Paul can sweep into Washington with his bootstraps philosophy and shape things up.
Then the phenomenon snowballs because all the people who support Paul inhabit a bubble where they all see the same simple logic and hear it repeated back. Like conspiracists, whenever someone from outside the bubble tries to suggest an alternate, more complex view, it feeds the sense that they are right. The nonbelievers just don't get it.
Full disclosure: I am susceptible to fringe candidates. I voted Nader and would have voted Kucinich. I tell myself that I did so because these kind of candidates help break up the extremely rigid world of Washington's conventional wisdom, but that's only part of it. The other part is that I, like the Paulies of '08, really like backing a slightly crazy radical.