Ron Paul's Endgame

(Jamelle Bouie/The American Prospect)

Ron Paul speaks to an audience in Charleston, South Carolina.

In the race for delegates in the Republican presidential primary, Ron Paul isn’t ahead, despite his solid support in nearly every contest. The Texas congressman has 18 delegates to Newt Gingrich’s 29, Rick Santorum’s 71, and Mitt Romney’s 105. But as The Washington Post's Felicia Sonmez reports, these results don’t tell the whole story:

[S]ome caucus states in the current GOP race award delegates in a process that’s completely separate from the presidential preference poll.

That means that a candidate could in theory win the caucus-night straw poll – as Romney did on Saturday – but lose the battle for the state’s delegates.

Ron Paul’s strategy, she notes, is to dominate the delegate-selection process, so that he wins delegates that—if the vote were binding—would have gone to the winner of the actual caucuses. What this means is that Paul could have significantly more delegates than what is indicated by the official total.

But Ron Paul, despite the devotion of his supporters, isn’t going to be the Republican nominee for president, nor will he take the vice-presidential spot. By the time the race ends, however, there’s a fair chance that he’ll hold a significant chunk of delegates. So, what does he plan to do with them?

Much of the speculation surrounding Paul's future has centered on an independent run for the presidency. Both Fox News and The Hill have run stories speculating about a third-party bid in the fall, where Paul would attempt to capture votes from right-wing Republicans—with his attacks on the Federal Reserve—and the disaffected left-wing of the Democratic Party, with his opposition to military engagements and the war on drugs.

The problem with this speculation is that, when asked, Paul has repeatedly denied any intention to run as an independent. It’s not hard to see why. Not only are the odds of a successful bid extremely slim, but if Paul were to run—and thus split the conservative vote—he could re-elect Barack Obama. In which case, his name would be forever tarnished in Republican circles, and his son, Rand Paul, could face irreparable damage to his career.

More than that, however, is the fact that an independent run would be out of sync with the tenor of his campaign. Unlike Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, or Rick Santorum, Ron Paul isn’t too concerned with policy, nor has he tried to carve out a niche through tribal resentment. Rather, Paul has presented himself as the head of a political movement, whose chief devotion is to the full-scale transformation of American society through the elimination of government and a return to “sound money.” It’s why his supporters have invested their time in the hard work of party building—the goal isn’t to win elections as much as it is to change the Republican Party from the inside.

This is how you should approach the steady accumulation of delegates from the Ron Paul campaign. Ron Paul isn’t as interested in leading the Republican Party as much as he’s devoted to bending it to his direction. Already, he’s been an influence on key figures like House Budget Chair Paul Ryan, who has adopted a variation on Paul’s support for the gold standard. A strong run for the nomination—with a hefty portion of delegates—gives him the power he needs to make his mark on one of the most important things to come out of the convention—the party platform. With a stamp on the GOP mission, Ron Paul doesn’t need to win high office—his ideas will pulse outward from within the Republican Party itself, and the Ron Paul Revolution will become another part of the GOP establishment.