DES MOINES, Iowa—The last time Republicans tried to hold caucuses in Iowa, they ended up with three winners. Mitt Romney won the initial count of the nonbinding delegates by eight votes on Jan. 3, 2012. Two weeks later a new count that actually included every precinct gave the poll to Rick Santorum by 34 votes. Seven months after that, the forces of Ron Paul swarmed the contest that actually elected bound delegates for Tampa. The result: Twenty-two of Iowa’s 28 delegates nominated Ron Paul for president from the convention floor.
The “liberty movement” (that’s the preferred catchall term in Iowa for Paul’s followers) stuck around the state, and took over. Iowa GOP Chairman A.J. Spiker was a Ron Paul supporter. So were seven of the 18 current members of the state committee. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul leads narrowly in ridiculously early polls of the next caucuses. He leads in New Hampshire, too. The first two states on the nomination calendar happen to be bastions of Paul voters. No one has won both states and lost the party’s nomination. These facts make Rand Paul even more of a force in Washington; they give the libertarian wing of the party heretofore unimagined clout.
“That foundation that exists within the party structure that was built around Ron Paul and libertarians is an advantage for Rand,” said Rep. Steve King in a short interview at the weekend’s Family Leadership Summit. “Any other candidate would be glad to be in that position.”
But how solid is that position? On Saturday I met Spiker, an affable 34-year-old real estate agent, at Fong’s Pizza in downtown Des Moines, where he argued that the Paul movement’s takeover of the Iowa GOP means less than advertised. It doesn’t soften up the state for Rand Paul. Yes, he is chairman, and Ron Paul campaign veterans David Fischer and Drew Ivers are now the party co-chairman and the finance chairman. That just means Paul’s forces are tied down with party bureaucracy.
“It actually makes it much harder for Rand,” said Spiker. “If you look at myself, Drew, and David, we were very active in the Iowa Campaign for Liberty.” He was referring to the group founded by Ron Paul in 2008 to build networks in the states. “We organized grassroots efforts around Audit the Fed and other things that were beneficial for the movement. We’re not doing that now. And look, if we were trying to benefit Rand, we wouldn’t bring Ted Cruz in, like we’re doing for the Reagan [fundraising] dinner in October.”
Obviously, even if they wanted to, the Paul movement’s allies in the state party couldn’t use their positions to organize for him. At best, they prevent the “establishment”—a word even Spiker uses—from trying to thwart a possible Rand Paul campaign. “I wouldn't say the Paul movement is stronger because Liberty minded people are elected to the State Central Committee,” Chad Steenhoek, a committee member who was endorsed by Ron Paul, emailed me. “I would say that the [Republican Party of Iowa] will not use tactics to exclude them, which I believe the RINOs [Republicans In Name Only] in our state would do if they were in charge of the process.”
Here’s the problem: When it mattered, the RINOs were in charge. At the Republican National Convention, while the wider world was distracted by Clint Eastwood, the party tweaked the delegate selection process to prevent future insurgencies. Paul’s people had overcome losses in the nonbinding precinct caucus polls of Iowa, Minnesota, and Maine by organizing and winning delegates when it counted, in little-noticed state conventions.
The new RNC rules change all that. The popular vote from those widely covered, widely attended precinct caucuses will now determine delegate counts. In Iowa in 2012, that would have meant probably six delegates each for Romney and Santorum, and five for Paul. Not 22 for Paul. Or it might have meant every available delegate went to Santorum, because another new rule allows states that vote before April 1 to assign all their delegates to whomever wins the popular vote.
Later this week, at the annual RNC meeting in Boston, Spiker will support an effort to change that latter “winner take all rule.” He won’t and can’t change the delegate-binding rules. That closes off a strategy that Ron Paul mastered and reduces the odds that a few candidates might skip Iowa and leave some turf to Rand.
And that turf isn’t as solid as it looks either. Nationally, sure, Rand Paul’s following in the GOP is stronger than his father’s. He polls better among Republicans; candidates clamor for his endorsement; Mitch McConnell’s tapped Paul family consigliere Jesse Benton to be his 2014 campaign manager.