Ron Paul makes his last stand in Nebraska this weekend, where he hopes to secure enough delegates to earn a 15-minute speaking slot at the Tampa convention and a nomination from the floor. But while whatever happens in Nebraska this weekend is unlikely to change the outcome of the election, the events will underline how the Republican Party is, by its own rules, already changing.
The workings of an American political party are complex. Conventions themselves actually used to serve a functional purpose. In the Republican Party’s second convention, held in Chicago in 1860, Abraham Lincoln secured the nomination through careful politicking, edging out frontrunner William Seward by cleverly picking up each delegate’s second choice. In the next 20 years, dark horses Rutherford B. Hayes and James A. Garfield also won the Republican nomination at these conventions — and then the presidency.
But these days, conventions are meant to be formalities. Accepting that, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama were dark horses once too, and they won their party’s nomination and the presidency through careful politicking at the state level.
The Ron Paul campaign knows the rules of caucuses and primaries better than anyone, and that’s how they’ve been able to pick up so many delegates. Marginalized politicians often have to play the political game better than anyone else to get a hearing and, at the very least, that’s what Ron Paul has already done.
To this end, even the Associated Press cannot help but notice the surging libertarian influence in the Republican Party, even though it maintains its report “is not a story about Ron Paul.” AP connects this libertarian trend back to the Founding Fathers, but we only need to go back as far as 1964 to see its roots.
Barry Goldwater was libertarian enough to oppose the Civil Rights Act for its impositions on private businesses, and while he may have lost in a landslide to Lyndon Johnson, his supporters went on to rally behind a California governor called Ronald Reagan. These young conservatives grew up to be social conservatives by the 1980s. The Reagan/Bush ’84 campaign ads appealed strongly to them. But Ross Perot shaped the 1992 election. And in 2010, the Tea Party elected Republican congressmen who, for good or for ill, forced a debate about the debt ceiling. How the Tea Party relates to Ron Paul is ambiguous, especially on foreign policy and the drug war. But the two are do share a connection.
And Paulites are young. The aforementioned AP article reports that Ron Paul “consistently won the 18-29 age bracket” early in the primary season, and the sort of ninja campaigning that leaves 2x4s spray painted on highway overpasses is clearly not the work of the Koch brothers. Ron Paul’s support is not likely to get behind Romney or Obama, and it probably won’t all migrate to Gary Johnson’s camp either, if only because he may not be on the ballot in all 50 states. But even if Paulites play no significant role in Tampa or in this election, their numbers are indeed growing. Whether or not there is a home for them in the hulking mass of the Republican Party will not be decided this year.