Ron Paul's Delegate Strategy: What's in It for Romney?

Paul is staying in the race to pursue a set of concessions from the Republican Party and its nominee -- but he's not offering anything in return.

Getty Images

In the wake of Ron Paul's announcement Monday that he will no longer campaign in upcoming primaries, his campaign attempted to explain Tuesday what exactly he is still doing in the race.

He may not be pursuing the nomination anymore, but he is still in the race as a means to other ends, as his campaign chairman, Jesse Benton, took pains to clarify. "Dr. Paul is not suspending his campaign. He is not dropping out of the race," Benton told reporters on a conference call.

But Benton acknowledged, in the call and an accompanying memo, that the nomination is almost certainly out of Paul's reach. "We recognize that Governor Romney has what is very likely an insurmountable delegate lead," he said on the call. "Unfortunately, barring something very unforeseen, our delegate total will not be strong enough to win the nomination," he wrote in the memo.

Why continue to be a presidential candidate when you've admitted your only chance to become president is for the nominee-in-waiting to succumb to a flesh-eating virus? The answer, according to Benton, is that Paul has a "delegate strategy" to maximize his representation at the Republican National Convention in Tampa in August. Of the 2,286 voting delegates at the convention, "several hundred" will be bound to vote for Paul's nomination, while hundreds more will be supporters of Paul's philosophy who are rule-bound to vote for Mitt Romney.

The point of this, as Paul himself has said and Benton repeatedly emphasized, is not to disrupt the convention in any way. "Rolling into the convention with a strong delegation, having hundreds of supporters there, sends a very strong message," Benton said. "We're here, our supporters are here, we're positive and respectful -- we're emphasizing decorum and we're going to do everything in our power to work with our supporters to make sure that decorum and respect are the name of the game. But we're going to respectfully show that our supporters are here, and we're the wave of the future."

On a practical level, Paul hopes to get some of his ideas incorporated in the official Republican Party platform. Specifically, he wants the party to embrace transparency and accountability for the Federal Reserve; monetary policy reform; prohibitions on indefinite detention; and "Internet freedom," i.e., the opposite of "net neutrality." Paul also hopes to have an influence on the party's rules in order to "prevent the establishment from locking the party down," Benton said.

Paul's people are in regular contact with Romney's people about achieving these goals in a peaceful manner. But why should Romney, who controls the convention as the presumptive nominee, grant Paul any of these concessions?

Paul is not, it turns out, offering anything in return. He's not offering his endorsement; he's not offering to encourage his followers to support Romney. "I would never say never, but I do not believe that is likely," Benton said when asked on the call if Paul would endorse Romney. (Nor is Paul threatening to endorse the Libertarian Party nominee, Gary Johnson: "There's no chance of that.")

As for whether Paul's supporters would get behind Romney, Benton said: "I think that is still up for grabs. I think that a lot of that is going to be determined by what plays out in the next several months up through Tampa. I think that, in a lot of ways, the ball is in the court of the Republican Party and in the court of Mitt Romney."

He added: "We're bringing forward an attitude of respect. We're also bringing forward specific things we believe in. Our people want to be respected in return. If our ideas are taken seriously and our people are treated with respect, the Republican Party has a chance to pick up a substantial number of their votes. On the flip side, if they treated the way they were in 2008, a lot of people are going to stay home and sit on their hands."

Thus far, Romney's campaign has done a much better job of keeping Paul in the tent than John McCain did four years ago, when Paul staged a counter-convention to the RNC's in the Twin Cities and endorsed a third-party candidate, the Constitution Party's Chuck Baldwin. There is a friendly relationship between Romney and Paul personally, as well as their campaign staffs -- Benton, in a follow-up interview, told me he talks regularly with Romney's campaign manager, Matt Rhoades -- and this has meant a lot to Paul, who views the official party apparatus with deep suspicion.

But there's plenty of reason to doubt that Romney will actually benefit from this gambit, decent and polite as it may be. At Paul's rallies, "Ron Paul or not at all!" is a common refrain. Like Paul, his supporters have little loyalty to the Republican Party as an institution. The purity of his supporters' commitment to his ideals, from the gold standard to pulling out of Afghanistan, makes them uniquely impervious to the sort of "lesser of two evils" arguments common in post-primary political alliances. In short, Ron Paul voters are not likely to turn into Mitt Romney voters, and Ron Paul doesn't have much interest in trying to make them do so.

Given the concessions Paul is asking from Romney and the party, I asked Benton, what is he offering in return?

"I think we're offering good will. I think we're offering friendship," he said. "And I think we're offering the opportunity for Republicans to court our supporters. But we're not deal-cutters. We're not your typical political campaign, offering to work this out in the back room. Our supporters and Dr. Paul believe in some very specific things, and we're laying out a path the Republicans can follow this fall to have a good chance of courting these people."

If Romney wants to win the Paul vote, it seems, it won't be good enough to put an audit-the-Fed plank in the Republican Party platform. He'd have to actually embrace and campaign on Paul's issues, which could, in case it needs to be said, be a tricky proposition where the mass of the electorate is concerned. He'd have to become Ron Paul.