What else were they going to do? Ron Paul’s 202-delegate haul was a footnote to the 2012 convention, a riveting distraction that few voters actually watched. “Probably CNN will find a way [to cover it],” snarked Haley Barbour, speaking for just about every non-Paulian Republican. It was fantastic television and even better blog fodder—give ‘em enough cameras and a hundred or so people can cause “mayhem,” even if nobody actually gets hurt.
But the rules that most outraged the Paul delegates will outlast Paul. In the Michael Steele era, when Republicans busily reverse-engineered the techniques Barack Obama used to beat them, the party changed primary and delegate rules to make them more competitive. If a state held a primary before April 1, it couldn’t set up “winner-take-all” rules without punishment—losing half of its delegates. That rule was scrapped. Many states left it up to conventions and caucuses to choose the “unpledged” members of the delegation. That was changed, too. In 2016 (if that’s the next open Republican primary), if, say, Artur Davis wins Iowa and the nomination, it would no longer be possible for some other candidate’s supporters to take over a convention and choose non-Davis delegates.
The meeting that altered these rules was swift, crowded, and brutal. After Sununu gaveled it in, a group of Paul delegates from Nevada gathered in a circle, hugging, and comforting the ones who’d started to cry. “Tyranny wins again,” muttered a Nevada alternate delegate, Marla Criss. Morton Blackwell, the Virginia delegate who’d teamed up with the Paul faction, left the meeting shortly after Sununu did. When Sununu saw his defeated rival, he offered him a handshake: “Well fought.” The people who wanted longer primaries and meaningful state conventions had clearly lost.
And most of these people, in 2012, were supporters of Ron Paul. When news of the rule changes got to them on the convention floor, they stewed and predicted the death of local politics.
“It’s the end of the grassroots,” sighed Jim Ayala, a Nevada delegate for Paul, who wore his Oath Keepers T-shirt to the floor. “It’s going to ruin the Republican Party.” Ayala had been part of a pro-Paul faction that dominated the 2008 Nevada conventions before the old rules helped take their delegates away. “I’ve been waiting to get here for five years, and I don’t know if anyone like me will get here again.”
This panic hasn’t spread. Matt Kibbe, the president of the Tea Party group FreedomWorks, was annoyed by the rule changes, and the GOP’s fear of “beautiful chaos.” But he wasn’t worried.
“The Utah convention process was designed to protect incumbents,” said Kibbe. “And yet [Sen.] Mike Lee won there, and [anti-Tea Party quote machine and former Sen.] Bob Bennett lost.” The people who wanted to stop coronations would learn the new rules. “Mitt Romney will be the last Republican nominee chosen by the insiders.”
And it’s no fun to be the last hold-out as the Insiders’ candidate gets crowned. The last, fitful exertions by Paul’s delegates were handled like the blatherings of senile uncles at Thanksgiving. When one Romney delegate saw a “Ron Paul R3VOLUTION” sign go up in the Nevada delegation, he squeezed next to the culprit and held up a MITT sign. One of Paul’s Texas delegates, Sung Song, tried to wave a Ron Paul flag during his state’s roll call. A Romney volunteer in a khaki suit hustled over to stop him.
“That’s not an approved sign,” said the enforcer.
Song folded up the sign inside one of the Romney placards, and put them both down. A fellow delegate walked over to commiserate.
“Oh, okay” he said. “Now they care about the rules?”