Stat whiz Nate Silver is currently projecting Ron Paul to win the Iowa caucuses. Mitt Romney trails by 24 points in Silver’s projection as of this posting.

Paul has curried favor with some on the left with his opposition to America’s empire building and financial chicanery, but he is first and foremost a conservative libertarian whose mostly consistent philosophy (his positions on abortion and immigration notwithstanding) is refreshing given the level of opportunism in the Republican race.

On the Republican side, the Iowa caucuses are driven by conservative activist voters and it is not a complete surprise to see Paul appealing to them.

It would be a big win for Paul, who might not welcome the added scrutiny of front-runner status. We have seen one not-Romney after another wilt under the heat of past embarrassments. In Paul’s case, we already know of some bigoted newsletters he’d rather stay buried.

Below, Silver explains the sudden benefit to Paul in his projections. — PZS

Nate Silver in The New York Times:

Our Iowa forecasts, which are designed to be quite aggressive, have had a big reaction to the new Public Policy Polling survey published late Sunday evening. The poll showed Newt Gingrich’s support slipping badly in Iowa and Ron Paul moving into the lead.

The poll has Mr. Gingrich with 14 percent of the vote, down from 22 percent in the same poll one week earlier and continuing a streak of declining numbers for Mr. Gingrich in state and national surveys. Mitt Romney’s support improved to 20 percent from 16 percent in the previous Public Policy Polling survey. But it was Mr. Paul, at 23 percent in the poll, who held the lead. Mr. Paul thus becomes the sixth candidate to have led an Iowa caucus poll at some point this cycle, joining Mr. Romney, Mr. Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain.

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