On Monday, the Republican nomination fight finally got reduced to a single candidate. This might surprise people who believed that the departure of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum had already made Mitt Romney the official nominee. But until Monday, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) had continued to raise funds and campaign in upcoming primary states.
That changed with a statement from the candidate himself — or at least it changed somewhat. Unlike Santorum and Gingrich, who suspended their campaigns entirely, Paul has instead decided not to contest any more states. Paul explained that his efforts in the rest of the nomination process would focus on consolidating his delegate gains in states that had already held their contests. "Our campaign will continue to work in the state convention process," Paul explained in his message. "We will continue to take leadership positions, win delegates, and carry a strong message to the Republican National Convention that Liberty is the way of the future."
Why now? The calendar gives a clue, but perhaps not for the obvious reasons. On Twitter, Slate's Dave Weigel noted that Kentucky and Texas have yet to hold their primaries, and Paul has good reason to avoid embarrassing losses in both states. Losing Texas would have embarrassed Paul himself, and losing Kentucky might have embarrassed his son Rand, who won a U.S. Senate race there in 2010.
The aim for Ron Paul isn't the convention, which is a mainly meaningless but entertaining exercise in American politics.
Comparisons to Santorum's decision to avoid a similarly damaging outcome in Pennsylvania would be easy to make – but are probably incorrect. Unlike Santorum, Paul didn't have any expectations of actually winning the nomination, even if some of his followers still entertained that fantasy. Paul will retire from Congress at the end of this year, so again, unlike Santorum, he doesn't have to worry about maintaining his electoral credibility through a home-state loss, a questionable status anyway having not won a single state in an election-day event in two entire cycles. And a loss in Kentucky wouldn't have hurt Rand Paul at all, although it wouldn't have helped, either. The father's inability to win in 2008 didn't damage the son's ability to win a Senate seat in his first attempt at political office.
The real story comes from the event types still left in the nomination process. All eleven contests are primaries, all but one binding on delegates. Paul cannot compete with Romney in primaries, and hasn't bothered to even put up a fight in primaries for months. The last state with at least part of its delegate allocations from caucusing was Indiana, an event that took place last Tuesday, where Romney cleaned up. The last non-binding event takes place this week in Nebraska. After that, every state will hold binding primaries, and Paul will have no hope of winning delegates in any of them. Why waste money on a dry well?
Instead, Paul will now focus his efforts on consolidating his gains in caucus states and taking delegates away from the other three Republicans. That doesn't put Romney at any risk; he has 806 bound delegates already, even apart from any he may still carry from caucus states. The remaining 10 binding primaries have 603 delegates at stake, more than enough to carry Mitt to the 1,144 delegates necessary for the nomination.
However, Paul's strategy will necessarily erode the standing of his other competitors. Gingrich has claims on 148 delegates at the moment, and Santorum 278, while Paul has a grand total of 99 — counting the outcomes of caucus states, which only actually get decided at conventions later in the process. Paul's campaign has laid the groundwork to take a number of those delegates for himself, which will raise his profile at the Republican convention while diluting the influence of Santorum and Gingrich.
He has already succeeded in winning half of Minnesota's delegates, thanks to superior organization at the local and congressional-district conventions, taking an important victory away from Santorum. Paul may well win the rest of Minnesota's delegates at the state convention, and then repeat this process in caucus state after caucus state. There is a good possibility that Paul will have more delegates than anyone not named Mitt Romney by the time Republicans gather for their quadrennial convention in Tampa.
So what is the real endgame? Some wonder whether Paul wants to stage a demonstration at the Republican convention, which he adamantly denied last week. Rumors have also circulated that Paul would flex his muscle to get the rules changed and unbind all delegates at the convention, but he doesn't have that kind of muscle, and it wouldn't result in a Paul nomination even if he did. Paul's delegates will have an impact on the party platform, which most believe is the object of Paul's strategy, but party platforms don't really have that much practical impact. Few people read them, and even fewer candidates feel bound to them.
Most people miss the fact that Paul has already achieved his end game, or is within a few weeks of its conclusion. The aim for Paul isn't the convention, which is a mainly meaningless but entertaining exercise in American politics. The real goal was to seize control of party apparatuses in states that rely on caucuses. With that in hand, Paul's organization can direct party funds and operations to recruit and support candidates that follow Paul's platform, and in that way exert some influence on the national Republican Party as well, potentially for years to come. Paul hasn't won every battle in that fight, but Minnesota will probably end up being more the rule than the exception.