Ron Paul describes his own supporters as “a tireless, irate minority.”
No less accurate are these observations: no supporters are more dedicated; no candidate more influential on the terms of debate; and no campaign less successful at racking up actual wins this primary season.
So far, the Paul team’s vaunted "caucus strategy" has failed to produce any upset victories. Every other candidate still in the race has won at least one state to date. The Paulites can boast only second-place finishes in New Hampshire, Maine, and Minnesota.
As Washington State's caucus count was coming in Saturday, Paul was again battling Rick Santorum for second place, even in this slacker-friendly state.
Paul's libertarian allies can explain his failure to win a state to date. "Ron Paul hasn't won a primary or a caucus for the simple reason that he is serious about cutting the size and scope of government," argues Nick Gillespie, editor-in-chief of the Reason. "Despite the GOP rhetoric of the past 30 years, the party faithful don't want to cut entitlement and defense spending or end the drug war or overseas adventurism." It is a fair point: no candidate, in either party, represents as fundamental a rejection of the Bush administration's governing philosophy.
But Super Tuesday totals could begin a shift from the Paul campaign’s caucus strategy to a delegate strategy.
It’s the day when Paul could start to adjust the narrative just a bit by creeping ahead of Newt Gingrich in total delegates. Right now, Gingrich is one delegate ahead of Paul in the totals—39 to 38. Mitt Romney’s organization, by comparison, has earned 182 delegates to date.
While Rick Santorum and Gingrich have some overlapping support from conservative populists looking for a red-meat alternative to Romney, Paul has the libertarian side of the conservative coalition all to himself. That creates an underlying logic for a long three-man race, likely between Romney, Santorum, and Paul.
In addition, as Ryan Prior reported on the Daily Beast’s Frum Blog, the Paul team is also trying to pack low-attendance, district conventions with sub rosa Paul supporters, with the intention of trying to wrest control of the nomination at the Tampa Convention.
It’s clear that the 76-year-old candidate is not build for speed or power. He is one of the oldest major-party presidential candidates to endure in a primary fight. Instead, Paul’s strategy is slow and steady, quietly racking up delegates on the road to Tampa, buoyed by this year’s unusual proportional allocation in three quarters of the states.
Due to the tendency to boil down the race to the top two candidates and focus on one key state at a time (Ohio at the moment), we end up functionally ignoring what’s going on in the full field.
Only a fan could ignore the fact that the results for Paul have been disappointing to date. I thought he could be the surprise of Iowa, but instead that honor went to Santorum. In Nevada, his supporters have been organizing for four years, and I still haven’t heard a satisfactory answer for why in that low-turnout caucus contest, they were not able to stand out further from the pack. In Maine, a recount ended up still titling toward Romney, despite Paul’s almost exclusive focus on the state.
Nonetheless, Paul gets the most-improved award this time around.
Romney seems to be actually shedding supporters. After all, he won Minnesota four years ago, but this time he came in a distant third despite the endorsement of the state’s allegedly popular former governor Tim Pawlenty. Likewise, Romney’s narrow win in his home state of Michigan was a far cry from his 9-point victory over John McCain in 2008.
In contrast, Paul has on average doubled his 2008 totals in each state. He has successfully broadened his base. And while the Tea Party has notably failed to use its 2010 momentum to back a single candidate for president, Paul was the first contemporary political figure to use the Tea Party imagery back in 2008, and that movement borrowed extensively from his Revolutionary-era rhetoric to his focus on the generational theft of the deficit and the debt.
Likewise, while the rest of the GOP field seems content to play to a declining demographic of white-male social conservatives, the oldest white male in the race has shown the greatest ability to expand the appeal of the GOP. Paul has consistently done best among young voters and independent voters in open primary states.
In the run-up to Super Tuesday, the Paul campaign has been running ads in Washington and Vermont, two states where Paul should do well, though polls show him in third place. If he can’t surprise in a caucus in Nirvana and Phish’s home states, he might have a steeper road ahead than his supporters expect.
In Virginia, only Paul and Romney are on the ballot, due to failures by other campaigns to qualify. The exclusionary idiocy of ballot-access laws aside, it provides a chance to see not only Paul’s support (he got just 4.5 percent in 2008) but a way to gauge the depth of opposition to Romney in conservative circles.
Beyond the Super Tuesday election results, the Paul campaign’s caucus strategy is being supplanted by a district convention delegate strategy, which Prior explained this way: “A candidate who can successfully manipulate these lesser-known ‘behind-the-scenes’ processes can put himself in an advantageous position should the convention begin in August with some doubt about the identity of the nominee.”
After all, Gingrich could drop out of contention if he doesn’t win Georgia. But win, lose, or draw Paul isn’t going anywhere. He will keep quietly racking up delegates, in the hope that he and perhaps Santorum can combine to deny Romney the 1,144 delegates needed to clinch the nomination. And then the real Ron Paul Revolution will begin in Tampa.
Bottom line: this nomination fight isn’t ending any time soon. Pay attention to the delegate math more than simple percentage of the popular-vote wins. And unless Romney can clinch 1,144 delegates outright—do not ignore Paul. After all, the story of this year’s Republican primary fight has been the sideshow taking over the big tent.