Why Ron Paul's Supporters are Furious About the Maine Caucus

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They say voters in Washington County were disenfranchised -- and they're right, although the final result probably wouldn't have been different.

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Did Ron Paul get robbed in Maine?

His supporters certainly think so. Since the state GOP announced Saturday evening that Mitt Romney was the winner of the Pine Tree State's caucuses, Paul backers have been in a tizzy over the exclusion of Washington County, as well as other irregularities in the vote, which gave the former Massachusetts governor a three-point win over the Texas representative. The defeat was particularly disappointing for Paul because he had campaigned more in the state than any other candidate and hoped that his unorthodox brand of politics would resonate with Maine's independent-minded GOP voters and hand him his first caucus or primary win of the season.

In any case, the answer seems to be: No, he probably didn't get robbed, but yes, he has reason to be upset.

Here's what happened: Washington County, which comprises the eastern-most point of the state, was scheduled to hold its caucus on Saturday, but ended up canceling the event because of inclement weather, as did part of adjacent Hancock County. There are a couple of ironies here. One is that jurisdictions had two and a half months in which to hold their contests. The second is that the vote is nonbinding: caucusgoers choose delegates to a state convention that chooses the state's 24 delegates, so the presidential result is just a straw poll of attendees. But the tally has some significance. In this case, it deprived Paul of a win and helped Romney stanch the narrative of three consecutive losses. And it also provides a rough snapshot of how the delegates will break down, since the same folks who cast straw-poll votes choose the delegates. State GOP officials opted to go ahead and announce the results anyway, without the missing areas.

Like Maine lobsters, local officials are predictably steamed:

Washington County GOP Chairman Chris Gardner objected, saying he had known his county's tally wouldn't be included in Saturday's announcement but didn't realize it wouldn't be counted at all. He said he had called state party leaders and "expressed my complete and utter dismay."

Gardner, a Romney supporter, said the snowstorm had left him no choice but to postpone the caucuses.

"Refusal to reconsider under those circumstances would be extremely disheartening," he told The Associated Press. "I trust that the party will make the right decision here."

He added, "We will proceed next Saturday. We'll have our vote and we are going to submit it to the state party for them to reconsider."

Even though the poll is nonbinding, voters in Washington County charge that they're being disenfranchised. And since the state party portrays the results as meaningful, it seems like they've got a pretty good point (it's important to remember that although state law governs elements of the caucuses, it's up to the Republican Party to make the determination here, not state elected officials or the state Elections Division). Paul's campaign is furious, too. Campaign manager John Tate blasted the move, writing: "In Washington County -- where Ron Paul was incredibly strong -- the caucus was delayed until next week just so the votes wouldn't be reported by the national media today. Of course, their excuse for the delay was 'snow' .... "This is MAINE we're talking about. The GIRL SCOUTS had an event today in Washington County that wasn't cancelled!" (It's not clear how that meshes with Gardner's own complaints; perhaps Tate thinks it's all just for show?)

On the other hand, as much as the means seem unacceptable, the ends probably wouldn't have changed much, as Nate Silver demonstrates. Among the votes that were actually counted, Romney won by 194, so Paul would have to win at least 195 votes plus however many Romney gets in the snowed-out caucuses in order to win. That's improbable, since in 2008, only 113 people voted in Washington County. And although Paul's team says he's strong there, he only got 8 percent of the vote four years ago. To prove their point, Paul backers are likely to mount a push to get as many voters to the rescheduled caucus next week, but it's not clear what would have happened without the kerfuffle. Across the state, turnout ticked up by fewer than 100 votes from 2008, from 5,491 to 5,585, excluding the yet-to-caucus counties. Alec MacGillis of The New Republic puts that in context (though his numbers are slightly out-of-date):

Meanwhile, the Bangor Daily News points us to reports that there are problems with the votes that actually were counted, and which matter toward delegate selection. It's not yet clear how corrections might affect the final slate of delegates, but a local conservative site argued that it could significantly hurt Romney.

The congressman himself is taking a conciliatory approach. He said on Face the Nation Sunday that he was "disappointed," but added that he has high hopes for winning the majority of the state's delegates at its convention in May. He very well may have a good run there.

As for Romney, he managed only only a thin plurality in a state he dominated in 2008, garnering 52 percent of the vote. But the big losers are the Maine GOP and the caucus system, which between Iowa's mishaps and this has been shown to be a highly questionable way to elect a presidential nominee.

Image: Brian Snyder / Reuters

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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