Through most of the primary season, Ron Paul was overlooked, underestimated and laughed off. There was no scenario by which this ideological renegade could become the nominee of the ideologically dogmatic Republican Party. Yet as the last candidate standing in the way of Mitt Romney’s smooth slide to the nomination, he is proving himself capable of ingenious mischief.
Over the weekend, Paul supporters in Maine and Nevada used the Byzantine rules that govern the nominating process to pirate delegates from the inevitable nominee. The caucuses in both those states were won by Romney, but the state party conventions, where the real allocation of delegates takes place, produced a different result. In Maine, Paul walked away with 21 of the state’s 24 delegates. In Nevada, Paul supporters will fill 22 of the 25 seats the state will have on the convention floor, although, because of the rules, 20 of those delegates are required to vote for Romney on the first ballot.
Remember when Rick Santorum won his first victory by squeaking by Romney in the Iowa caucuses way back in January? Well, again this weekend, Iowa Republicans continued that process by choosing 13 of the state’s 28 delegates. Surprise! Ten of those 13 are Ron Paul backers.
In Idaho’s May 15 primary, the Paulistas aim to win enough precinct races to have a majority of delegates to the subsequent state party convention. If they are able to pull that off, they can suspend the rules and take away some or all of the 32 delegates Romney thought he won in Idaho’s March 6 caucuses.
If this sounds a bit crazy, it is. Many states employ combinations of caucuses, primaries and conventions to eventually come up with their lists of delegates. The rules are different in each state, and it takes a dedicated cadre of political geeks to keep track of them all.
Paul certainly has the geek vote. His appeal is not to conventional Republicans. He is a libertarian who favors tiny government, a small defense establishment, marijuana legalization and no entangling military adventures in foreign lands. His backers include peaceniks, pot smokers, students, tea party types and a host of others who just want government to leave them alone with their money or their stash of weed.
Conventional politics is not what drives this crew. They are not inclined to fall in line behind Romney for the sake of the party. They actually do not care about the party; they care about Paul’s ideas.
They know they cannot win the nomination, but even the Paul supporters from Nevada who will be forced to vote for Romney in the first round do not actually care about that little detail. They and quite a few of their compatriots will be on the convention floor where they can demand a voice in the party platform and a prominent speaking slot on the program for their candidate.
Beyond convention maneuvers, two Paul backers in Nevada were elected to the Republican National Committee, beating out a pair of Romney’s people. That gives Paul -- or his ideas, at least -- a place in the party’s highest council for the next four years.
Will all this actually achieve anything lasting? Perhaps not, since the party’s real agenda will be set in Congress or in the White House, if Romney wins. Still, the mere fact that Paul’s motley rebels are able to pull off these stunts in state after state may indicate a problem in the Republican ranks. Is it just that their nominating process is an incoherent jumble of arcane rules? Is it that even active Republicans have lost interest now that the nomination fight is over and only the fervent Paul backers are showing up to finish the work of selecting delegates? Or is it a disturbing lack of enthusiasm for the man who will lead the party into battle against President Obama?
We will see. If nothing else, this round of delegate stealing by a candidate who everyone counted as inconsequential brings a fitting close to a primary season that has brought us one crazy thing after another.