Ron Paul’s Secret Primary
He keeps on racking up delegates. What will they do when they lose?
Republican presidential hopeful Ron Paul is still accumulating delegates
Photograph by T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images.
RonPaulForums.com is just the sort of earnest samizdat that people joke about when they remember to joke about Ron Paul. It was founded during Paul’s 2008 campaign, and the look and topics have barely changed. There are nearly 25,000 active threads about “economics and sound money.” Nestled at the bottom of the page are ads for the Ron Paul Milk Chocolate Standard (“the Ron Paul chocolate bar is here!”) and Ammo.net, which promises an “automatic donation” to Paul for every bullet you buy.
Laugh too hard and you’ll miss the posts about how Ron Paul is actually winning. On April 30, a Louisiana Paulian named “Darguth” penned 1,826 words (not counting emoticons) about how, over the weekend, the movement took four of the state’s six district conventions. Darguth explained how he’d tutored himself in Louisiana’s Byzantine delegate-selection Hunger Games—a primary, followed by caucuses, followed by a convention—and how he “diligently made calls” to keep fellow Paulians engaged.
“We set about doing exit polling at the primary,” Darguth wrote, “and we identified Ron Paul voters who we could contact afterwards (to avoid any illegal electioneering at the primary site on election day) to give them details on the caucus.” Later, he was spending “probably at least 5-6 hours a day” crunching data to put together a Paul faction at his caucus. On the fateful day, as the votes were counted, “our pile grew so much you could visibly see we'd won.”
What was actually achieved by Darguth and his fellowship? Not much, not yet. The final Louisiana delegate selections will happen at a June convention. What was proved? Activist-for-activist, Paul’s people make the Republican Party look like pikers. And there will be some consequence—we’re not sure what yet—when the Paul diehards inevitably lose.
The Paul campaign’s “delegate strategy” is no secret. In January, as they stared down a month of popular-vote losses, the campaign talked of its 10 state campaigns, some in places that would not start caucusing until March. “We're a delegate-focused campaign,” said campaign spokesman Jesse Benton on January 10, explaining why a second-place finish in New Hampshire would be perfectly all right.
They kept talking and the media turned out. The turning point came in Maine’s weeklong series of caucuses. Paul’s team, hyperaware of how the media wanted to switch the colors of states on election night maps, suggested that the candidate might win the caucus straw vote. He didn’t. “[Paul]’s campaign may have blown its best chance at winning a state in the Republican presidential contest,” sighed Aaron Blake in the Washington Post.
Paul only polled second in Minnesota and North Dakota. It didn’t really matter that these were nonbinding caucuses. The press found other stories to cover, such as whether Rick Santorum dropped a meaningful clause in a speech, or whether Hilary Rosen was Barack Obama’s running mate. Paul lost his last full-time “embed” on March 14.
Let’s give the media some credit: The mass embed exodus made sense. After Super Tuesday, Paul’s campaign has consisted, mostly, of “massive town halls” (the campaign uses this term in press alerts) in college towns. There’s not much for the press to cover, vis-a-vis the candidate.
No, the action is in the states. In the second-to-last weekend of April, Paul supporters overwhelmed Minnesota’s congressional district caucuses—the events that actually picked delegates. There were 24 delegates at stake, and Paul’s people won 20 of them. One week later, Republicans in Massachusetts got to assign 19 delegate slots from the state’s congressional districts. Paul won 16 of them, denying one to the woman whose last resume item was “lieutenant governor under Mitt Romney.” Four time zones away, Paul supporters were getting their man elected chairman of the Alaska Republican Party—a voting RNC delegate. Next week, the rolling coup moves to Nevada. The mostly binding February caucuses were disappointments for Paul supporters. They think they can win 65 percent of convention delegates anyway.
Paul’s supporters pulled this off in some 2008 conventions and caucuses. They ended up arriving at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., holding their own rally in Minneapolis, and getting totally screwed out of nominating Paul on the floor.
But they have learned. In order for Paul’s name to be put into nomination at the Tampa convention, according to RNC Rule 40(b), the candidate needs a plurality of delegates from five states. They’re sure they can pull that off. They won’t say how. “We have a hard delegate count,” says Benton, “but we keep it internal.”
It’s hard to get a solid delegate count. Most media outlets that publish these counts base them on estimates on how they’d break down if state convention-goers behaved like primary voters. It’s also in Paul’s interest to keep this mysterious. When Republicans have prepared for the Paul takeover, they’ve defeated it. In Massachusetts, for example, party rules require the Paul-friendly delegates to vote for the guy who won the primary—Mitt Romney. In North Dakota, according to state director Jared Hendrix, Paul’s forces had “quadrupled” from 2008 to 2012. But chicanery cost them the delegates they thought they earned. A list of RNC delegates, provided by the state party, suggests that most of them support Mitt Romney. He only came in third place in the Super Tuesday vote.
“They required people on the convention floor to write down delegate names on their own, on their ballots,” explains Hendrix—for whom “they” are the Republican establishment. “They’d flash the names on a screen, but the screen kept changing, and they didn’t account for a number of old people there who had trouble seeing. They didn't follow rules … they cut off the mic … it was not a fair process.”
The right amount of Paul-blocking techniques will prevent Romney from getting embarrassed. Too much of it will tick them off. Paul had actually gone easy on Romney during debates and primaries, neglecting to mention the front-runner in negative ads. The payoff (no quid quo pro, just talkin’) was supposed to be prime convention speaking slots and serious input on GOP platform planks—not too difficult, because the much-ignored platform is usually more right-wing than the nominee. Four years ago, feeling a little stiffed by the party, Paul waited until after the convention to endorse a slew of third party candidates. How do you keep his supporters from leaving the GOP again? You start by letting them stage a few successful coups.
The rest of the GOP has to plan for this. Paul’s people aren’t stopping. Another item for sale on RonPaulForums is a documentary titled For Liberty, a well-made insider’s look at the 2008 campaign, with friendly interviews of volunteers. Its third act is full of cable-news reports on Paul’s many, many losses. It’s a popular item, one that inspires Paul’s people to call their friends about showing up at the next caucus.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.