These usually happen after the votes: Local conventions elect delegates to state conventions. State conventions elect delegates to the national convention. Then, in Tampa in August, national delegates will cast the votes that choose the nominee.
In nine states, the first step determines the later ones: All delegates are “bound” to vote for whomever the voters chose. But in the other states, delegates are split between candidates. Or they are allowed to ignore the voters and choose for themselves.
For Paul, that means a battle lost at the polls can be refought in a hotel ballroom.
“They stepped off the field after the first inning. We stayed on the field,” said Carl Bunce, Paul’s campaign chairman in Nevada. In February, Romney won Nevada’s statewide caucuses by 30 points. But after that, Paul’s people started working the state’s series of conventions and got their people in 22 of the state’s 25 delegate slots.
That’s not as big a victory as it sounds: 14 of Nevada’s delegates will still be “bound” to vote for Romney on the convention’s first ballot.
But Bunce said there’s always a chance that Romney won’t win on the first ballot. And even if he does, Paul’s people will be able to clamor for policy priorities, such as stopping foreign wars, radically shrinking the government or auditing the Federal Reserve.
“It’s kind of movement versus moment. The moment here is the 2012 campaign. But we’re also trying to build a strong liberty movement” for the future, Bunce said.
“We’re not going to be let down by a moderate like Mitt Romney being our nominee.”
Paul’s people hope to win similar victories at conventions in Minnesota, Iowa, Louisiana and Washington.
As Paul’s numbers grow, so does his ability to disrupt the convention’s rituals of Republican unity: His supporters might be able to put Paul forward for the nomination or vote against the GOP’s official platform.
“The Paul folks don’t necessarily have to play the usual game. And by at least holding the threat of embarrassing [Romney] at the convention, they can hope to leverage something,” said Josh Putnam, a professor at Davidson College in North Carolina who studies the minutiae of delegate selection. “What that is, I have no earthly idea.”
But so far, Paul’s campaign has not threatened this kind of disruption. The reason, Paul’s advisers said, is that Paul’s long-term goal is not to fracture the GOP, but, over time, to remake it in his libertarian image.
This effort is already showing results. In Iowa — the iconic state that starts the presidential nominating process — the chairman of the state GOP is a former Paul campaign worker.
And despite the fact that Santorum won Iowa’s famous caucuses this year, Paul seems on track to get a large share of that state’s delegates. Of the 13 people set to be nominated for delegate positions at the state convention, 10 have expressed public support for Paul, according to the Des Moines Register.
So it would be counterproductive to embarrass other Republicans with a screaming-match convention that weakens the party’s nominee.
Seen in that light, what does Paul’s delegate strategy mean?
“The future. The sun also rises. I’ll put it that way. It means that congressman has a son who’s a U.S. senator. That’s what it means,” said Wead, Paul’s senior adviser.
Maybe that son could be a presidential candidate someday? “Now, I won’t say that,” Wead said. “But that’s a good point.”
Staff writers Philip Rucker and Amy Gardner contributed to this report.