Delegates and the Ron Paul Strategy

You’re going to hear a lot about Ron Paul’s nifty plans to snag delegates by out-organizing the other campaigns. See for example this article about how Paul’s people were trained to stick around after the straw poll vote portion of the caucuses in order to secure as many next-stage delegates as possible (in the Iowa multistage caucus process).

It’s very unlikely to matter.

Here’s the deal. Ron Paul is, of course, not going to be the Republican nominee; in fact, he’s not going to come remotely close. His faction is going to struggle to stay over 15% of the vote in most states, and under Republican rules that’s not going to translate into all that many delegates. Other than the very, very unlikely event that Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum battle to a delegate tie similar to last night’s Iowa caucuses tie, it’s not really going to matter very much to the nomination whether Paul gets 5%, or 10%, or even 20% of the delegates (and, really, gaming out all the obscure rules isn’t going to get him a total delegate share larger than his overall vote share, so it’s not going to be 20%).

Nor will it matter very much at the convention whether Paul leads an army of delegates or just a handful for reasons beyond the nomination. On the issues where Paul varies wildly from the rest of the GOP — foreign policy, civil liberties, and a few others — he’s not going to win. For the rest, the real leverage that Paul has isn’t the number of delegates who will listen to him; it’s the vote in November. Whether Romney (or Santorum) will buy the threat that he jumps third party or just tells them to stay home isn’t going to have anything at all to do with whether Paul has a couple hundred or a couple dozen delegates at the convention.

The truth is that even though delegate counts are what formally determine the nominee, very few nomination battles have come down to delegate counts. So, yes, it makes sense to maximize whatever you can maximize (and don’t think that the Romney campaign is going to just allow the Paul people to grab delegates uncontested, by the way). But it just isn’t very likely to make much of a difference.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.