Iowa caucuses: How Ron Paul can "win" and lose in the same night

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Several recent poll results suggest that Texas Congressman Ron Paul could be in for a good result this coming Tuesday, the night that Iowa voters gather for Republican precinct caucuses, the first step in a series of conventions that will lead to the selection of delegates and alternates to the Republican National Convention in Tampa. Paul is running 1st or 2nd in the most recent five polls tabulated by Real Clear Politics, with anywhere between 17% and 24% support.

Regardless of the outcome of Tuesday night's straw poll of precinct caucus attendees, Iowa's delegates and alternates will not be bound to a presidential candidate, and there's at least one scenario in which the "winner" of Tuesday's straw poll won't have any representation at all in Iowa's RNC delegation.

Journalists who don't have the patience to read party rules or the intelligence to appreciate careful distinctions will wrongly assume that Iowa's RNC delegation will be allocated proportionately to the straw poll result (because that's how the Democrats do it) or that all the delegates will be awarded to the first-place finisher (because so many Republican primaries are winner-take-all).

This isn't a primary. It's a non-binding straw poll of those who show up for the precinct meetings. It's more representative of grassroots opinion than the Ames straw poll, because people don't have to be bussed in or pay a significant fee to vote. For the Iowa caucus straw poll, Republicans will vote near their homes, all over the state, for free. Turnout will be higher than Ames by an order of magnitude -- about 17,000 votes were cast at Ames, about 120,000 were cast on caucus night four years ago. Media interest in the outcome is reasonable, especially with no previous hard numbers from any state to indicate candidate strength, but media attempts to estimate delegate count based on Tuesday's GOP result are baloney. The true count of bound delegates on Wednesday morning will be goose-eggs across the board.

Oklahoma Republicans will have caucuses just like Iowa, only four weeks later. On February 1, we'll gather in homes, churches, and cafes, elect delegates to the county convention, vote on potential party platform planks, and conduct a straw poll. Turnout won't be as high, and there won't be any media attention, but functionally, there's no difference between the Oklahoma caucuses and the Iowa caucuses. Unlike Iowa, however, Oklahoma's delegates will be bound to vote for the statewide winner and congressional district winners in our presidential preference primary in March.

That's not to say that Tuesday's caucuses accomplish nothing beyond manipulating public opinion about the GOP horserace. Real decisions are made that will affect what happens in Tampa.

Each precinct will elect delegates to the county convention. The county conventions, held on March 10, will each elect delegates to the state convention.

At the state convention on June 16, state delegates will caucus by congressional district to elect three delegates and three alternates each to the national convention. The state convention as a whole will elect 13 delegates. Three ex officio delegates, Iowa's members of the Republican National Committee, complete the total of 28 delegates -- the State Chairman, the National Committeeman and the National Committeewoman.

At that June convention, a majority of delegates might decide to elect a slate of national delegates who are inclined to support a particular candidate. That could happen if no candidate has a majority of national delegates sewn up at that point.

More likely, by June the nomination will already be decided, and the privilege of being a national delegate will be bestowed on hardworking volunteers and generous donors to the state and county parties, for the most part without regard to their presidential preference. In 2008, John McCain finished 4th in the Iowa caucus straw poll with 13.7% of the vote, but at the national convention, all 40 Iowa delegates voted for John McCain. By the time the state convention was held in July (delayed a month due to massive flooding), John McCain was the only candidate who hadn't withdrawn from contention. Thompson and Guiliani dropped out in January, Romney dropped out in February, Huckabee in March, and Paul in June.

So back to the situation I suggest in the headline to this post. Let's say Paul's support holds and he finishes first in a close race, with about 25% of the statewide caucus vote. That vote won't be evenly distributed. Some precincts will have a majority of Ron Paul supporters in attendance, and I would expect those precincts to elect Ron Paul supporters as their delegates to the county convention and to pass platform resolutions reflecting Ron Paul's distinctive opinions.

But in this scenario, in the vast majority of precincts, Paul's support will be far below 50%. In these precincts, I would expect supporters of "Non-Paul" candidates to band together and ensure that no Ron Paul supporters represent them at the county convention. There will be exceptions -- a Paulistinian who is a long-time party activist or a community leader might be advanced to the next level.

At the county level, there may be a few counties with a concentration of Paul supporters where the majority of county delegates will be Paul fans and will elect their own to the state convention. But at most county conventions, Paul's support will be less than 25%, and "Non-Paul" delegates will band together to keep Paul supporters away from the state convention.

If Paul is to have any backers at all at the state convention, it will only happen if the campaign successfully mobilizes its supporters to constitute a majority of the caucusers at a majority of the precincts in at least one county. If Paul's 25% support is spread evenly across the state, he will have no delegates at the Iowa state convention and no delegates from Iowa in Tampa.

This outcome would not be the result of a grand establishment conspiracy against Ron Paul. It would be a reflection of how Paul polarizes the Republican electorate. While Santorum, Perry, Bachmann, and Gingrich supporters may disagree about the relative merits of their candidates, they are all likely to agree with each other and differ strongly with Paul supporters on issues like Iran, Israel, drug legalization, and whether 9/11 was an "inside job."

The supporters of these four candidates may likewise band together to prevent Romney supporters from advancing to the county convention, so that, if there's still an active contest in June, the convention would pick national delegates who will back the non-Romney and non-Paul candidate still in the race.

This sort of thing happened in Oklahoma in 2008. Ron Paul supporters dominated some county conventions and attempted to get their people elected as national delegates and placed on the statewide slate nominated by the state executive committee. A certain amount of stealth was used -- they didn't identify themselves as Paul backers when campaigning for delegate slots and they stayed away from his distinctive issues. They succeeded in capturing two delegate slots in the 2nd Congressional District, which was the first of the five district conventions. At the the 1st district convention, "Non-Paul" supporters circulated lists of Ron Paul backers seeking delegate slots.

Since the majority of delegates at Oklahoma's district and state conventions were conventionally conservative Republicans who backed Huckabee, McCain, Romney, and Thompson, they voted for their fellow conventional conservatives for delegate, and Paul backers were shut out. Although all the Oklahoma delegates were bound to vote for the primary winner (6 for Huckabee, 32 for McCain), the worry was that several state delegations full of Paul backers would have created a lot of upset at the national convention, reshaping the platform in disturbing ways and possibly overthrowing rules that bound them to vote for other candidates. In the end, the two Ron Paul supporters in the Oklahoma delegation, bound to vote for Huckabee, were released when he dropped out of the race, and they voted for Paul in the roll call, two of Paul's 23 delegates.

Ron Paul may "win" the Iowa caucuses straw poll by a narrow margin with a tiny plurality, and that result may boost fundraising and volunteer activity, but it won't boost his delegate count at all.

RESOURCES: The Green Papers website does a great job of getting the details right on the American political process. Some pages that served as information sources for this entry:

MORE perspective on Ron Paul:

Eric Dondero, long time Ron Paul aide, speaks out about the Ron Paul newsletters

David Bahnsen: The Undiscerning and Dangerous Appreciation of Ron Paul: "Ron Paul knows full well that his closest connections are a mixed bag of the most extremist sort of anarcho-capitalists...."

I spent several hours speaking with Ron Paul shortly after 9/11. He informed me that the Islamicist threat was a made up one, just as the Communist threat of the 1950's and 1960's was. He told me, to my face, in his own words, that Lew Rockwell and his people were the only ones calling a spade a spade: America did deserve what the Islamicists were trying to do to us, and if we simply learned to leave them alone, they would in turn leave us alone. It was among the most despicable and disappointing conversations I have ever had with another adult....

My concern is not Ron Paul's errors on this subject. My concern is that he has used the freedom movement to generate name recognition and fame, and then through sleight of hand converted the popularity over his limited government rhetoric to promote an agenda of anti-Americanism and military isolationism.

HotAir: Paul: I did write parts of the newsletters but not the bad parts. In a radio interview with WHO, Paul changes his story about his newsletters, and effectively disavows only a "total of eight or ten sentences" from his newsletter output, while claiming that he didn't see the edited newsletters and didn't know about the objectionable sentences for years. When I was writing a weekly column that someone else edited, you can bet that I read the published version of the story as soon as it hit the streets and squawked when an edit put something even mildly objectionable in my mouth. As I wrote on one such occasion in 2007:

When words appear under my byline, they are identified with me, and they speak for me, whether I wrote them or not. I don't appreciate having my name associated with opinions or attitudes I don't share....

I appreciate what copy editors do. I'm grateful when they fix my typos, add transitional sentences when I lurch too quickly from one idea to another, and make me look smarter, Charlotte's Web style, by putting brilliant headlines over my words. And when they get carried away, I'll handle it as I did this time -- let the readers know of the discrepancy and mend fences with the individuals who might have been offended by what someone else wrote under my name.

(Here's another example from my farewell to Michael DelGiorno;I protested the editor's gratuitous aside backhanding author Michael Wallis, whom I greatly admire.)

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Given how the process works, when all is said and done it is possible that neither Ron Paul nor Mitt Romney get any Iowa delegates to the Republican Nation Convention! Now you may wonder how this is possible, but it has to do with the fact that the Iow... Read More

Florida turned out as expected, but as I wrote right after South Carolina, there's no need for anyone of the remaining candidates to head for the exits. Mitt Romney's campaign is restarting the inevitability bandwagon. Pundits are falling over each oth... Read More


Timothy said:

Good article. I think that, as usual, Paul's campaign is currently working on winning attention, not delegates.

My one issue is your insinuation that Paul believes 9/11 was an "inside job". While many of his supporters are "truther" conspiracy theorists (in good company with racists, anarchists, and all the other wild people one might expect to support such an unconventional candidate), I have never heard Paul supporting the position. He controversially believes that U.S. actions abroad motivated the terrorists, and he tactlessly accuses the Bush administration of "glee" for an excuse to invade Iraq, but when asked if he thinks 9/11 was an inside conspiracy he "absolutely" denies that belief.

Am I missing sources inconsistent with the interview fragment I linked above?

Lew B said:

I agree with Timothy's comment about your article being good and also with his comment about your insinuation, which may lead some to believe that Ron Paul believes that 9/11 was an inside job. It seems to me that Glen Beck used that insinuation to completely derail Medina's campaign for Governor of Texas, so I see it as either intentional or rather reckless for a reporter to make that implication when the candidate hasn't stated that view.

Something I will point out that isn't in disagreement with what you wrote is that Ron Paul dropped out of the race in June of 2008, which I will add, was after the primaries were over. I don't see any reason he wouldn't still be in the race when the Iowa state delegates are chosen this time, especially considering that he won't be running for Congress in 2012.

I realize that your article is about how Ron Paul could win the caucus poll and still not get any delegates, but here is a another possible scenario. The Republican race could end up being between Romney and Paul. In that case, as the race goes on, caucus voters at the state conventions and primary voters would mostly be deciding between Romney and Paul. Who they peeled off to would be a big factor in who became the nominee.

Thanks to Timothy and Lew for your comments. To try to clarify: What will matter as delegates at each level choose delegates to the next level is less what Ron Paul believes and more what his followers who are seeking delegate positions believe. I may admire Paul's stand on monetary issues but would not vote for a Ron Paul follower who believes 9/11 was an inside job or who is hostile to Israel's existence. (E.g., the RP backer who jumped into a conversation between my son and myself at a coffeehouse, and was careful to point out that RP was the only candidate who isn't a Zionist, assuming I'd think that was a good thing.)

I doubt the race would come down to Romney vs. Paul, unless Romney is very near a majority of committed delegates, and Paul is just hanging on for the sake of hanging on. If it's May and Romney still isn't at a majority, that would mean some other candidate is still in the race, winning enough delegates to keep Romney from going over the top.

Its amazing how things have gone, looking at the situation now with the polls and Paul voters insisting lots of vote fraud is on going.

I wish Ron Paul had won tbh, I think America and the rest of the world would be such a better place for us all.

Thanks for the good article.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on December 30, 2011 8:40 PM.

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