Ron Paul ran for president and lost.
“We knew going in it was a longshot,” says Dimitri Kesari, who coordinated state efforts for the 12-term (over three separate stints) Texas congressman’s second and final GOP primary campaign. “If victory was to happen, everything had to line up perfectly.”
That had to begin in Iowa, the first stop on the long slog to the Republican nomination. With over $1 million spent on TV, more than 100 candidate appearances, and more than 300 campaign-managed volunteers, Ron Paul’s people attacked the Hawkeye State, and the race in general, with a unique strategy. Rather than focus on winning the popular vote—the so-called beauty contest—the campaign took advantage of differing rules in the primaries and caucuses to maximize the number of delegates it could take to August’s Republican National Convention (RNC) in Tampa. Iowa, with its arcane, multi-stage caucus process, would be the ideal early laboratory for seeing whether Paulite enthusiasm could overrun GOP machine politics as usual.
And there was a longer-term strategy as well: “We were doing it for a movement,” says Kesari, a former organizer from National Right to Work. “Our first goal was building the army, and the second goal is to win.”
Paul came tantalizingly close in Iowa, finishing behind the nearly tied Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney by just 3,000 votes, or 2.5 percentage points. The margin was close enough to breed suspicions of vote-counting irregularities among Paul supporters, but large enough in strategic terms to have some staffers declare the race over before it started. “The campaign was lost on January 3,” one disappointed mid-level campaign operative told me.
The irony is that, despite the fact that Mitt Romney was declared the victor on voting day and a recount gave the vote to Santorum two weeks later, it turned out Ron Paul actually did win Iowa, at least in the only currency honored at the RNC. Paul’s people worked the caucus process so diligently and intelligently that they eventually snapped up 21 of Iowa’s 25 delegates.
To win a primary, presidential campaigns need only motivate enough voters to spend 20 minutes or so driving to a polling place and casting a vote. Winning delegates in a caucus requires dedication over the course of months, sitting or standing through a series of often tedious day-long meetings with fellow Republicans. It’s a game where the depth of feeling for a candidate counts for more than its breadth. Over the course of the fight, Paul supporters seized many positions of authority within the Iowa Republican Party. The new state chair of the Iowa GOP, A.J. Spiker, started out as a higher-up in Paul’s Iowa campaign team, for instance.
Paul came in a strong second in the New Hampshire primary the next week, and many of his lower-ranked foes, such as Herman Cain and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), dropped out. But winter break was over, and the masses of students willing to phone-bank for Paul scattered to campus quads across the nation. The campaign was never again able to repeat its Iowa/New Hampshire–level of call saturation in later states.
As Dr. No heads into the political wilderness (see “Ron Paul’s Farewell Address to Congress,” page 24), a close reading of his final campaign may tell us more about where the GOP—and the country—are headed than Mitt Romney’s forgettable failure in the general election.
Paul’s caucus-focused delegate strategy, which the campaign had been open about from the beginning, was painted by the media and his competitors as being somehow sneaky or disreputable. As he started converting second-place voting-day totals into first-place delegate-acquisitions in early states such as Maine and Minnesota, some observers began to fret that maybe the whole caucus process needed to be re-thought. A Fox News website headline in May described Paul’s delegate strategy as a plan to “hijack” the convention. GOP consultant Bob Haus complained to the Huffington Post that month that Paul’s delegate victories in Iowa were “costing the state a lot of credibility.”
But from the Paul point of view, the only underhanded behavior was coming from the establishment GOP. In April, the Alaska Republican Party changed its filing deadline for its state convention at the last minute, preventing some Paul delegates from getting their paperwork in on time. In Maine, a Romney operative was distributing fake slates of Paul delegates at its state convention to confuse voters. And at a Missouri caucus in St. Charles in March, police helicopters were called in after a row that ended in the arrests of two Paul supporters.
By late spring, these procedural squabbles were beginning to resemble holdovers from a war that had already been lost. The Paul project at this point seemed less a political campaign and more a campus speaking tour. He spoke to more than 100,000 college students at more than 30 colleges over the course of his campaign. I saw him at UCLA in April where an overflow audience of 7,000 anticipated his applause lines and networked their own budding plans to further the revolution, whether from within or without the Republican Party apparatus. Paul’s biggest draw that spring was at traditionally left-leaning Berkeley, where 8,500 came to hear him criticize the Federal Reserve and never-ending war.
The septuagenarian obstetrician at this point was battling President Barack Obama to a draw in one-on-one national polls. And by late April, the remaining non-Romney candidates, Santorum and Newt Gingrich, had dropped out. The presidential field was finally where the campaign always hoped it would be: just Romney and Paul, with huge prizes such as California and Paul’s native Texas ahead. Romney hadn’t yet sewn up the 1,144 delegates needed for the nomination, and the campaign’s longstanding goal of a brokered convention remained within the realm of technical possibility.
Then, in mid-May, Ron Paul issued a press release saying he wouldn’t be competing actively in California and Texas, using past-tense language such as congratulating his supporters for having “fought hard.” The media’s understandable conclusion: Paul had dropped out.
Except he hadn’t. The next day political director Jesse Benton scrambled to reframe the announcement, explaining that while the campaign was abandoning efforts to rack up primary votes in the big, expensive states, the effort to win delegates at state conventions would continue. Benton stressed the campaign’s desire to maintain a good relationship with the GOP, explaining that he wanted “respect and decorum” rather than more convention scrums.
The announcement hit Paul’s volunteer army hard. For some, it was evidence that the professional higher-ups surrounding the candidate—especially Benton, the grassroots’ bête noire—had lost intentionally. Theories ranged from the mundane (perhaps Paul was angling for a speaking slot at the convention) to the practical (the campaign was smoothing the path for the blander, more mainstream Rand Paul in 2016) to the paranoid (operatives were trying to kneecap the liberty movement entirely). This was a conspiracy theory I heard not only from anonymous firebrands at websites such as Ron Paul Forums, but from Oklahoma alternate delegate Porter Davis at the RNC. “For such a bunch of smart guys, they must have thrown the game to squander so many resources for such a pitiful result,” Davis said.
Activists noted that the announcement came directly after a weekend of particularly chaotic GOP state conventions. Paul fans had clashed with Romney folk in Arizona, and in Oklahoma, the Paulites split to run their own rump convention.