By Anjeannette Damon | Politico | May 9, 2012
Yes, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won the Nevada caucuses in February, capturing 50 percent of the vote.
Why then did last weekend’s headlines read that Texas Rep. Ron Paul won almost all of Nevada’s national delegates?
For that, we have the country’s cumbersome and arcane system for nominating presidential candidates to blame. You see, a simple vote doesn’t determine the winner when you’re talking presidential politics.
Here is a six-part primer to help you make sense of the strange results and what it all means once Republicans arrive in Tampa, Fla., for their national convention.
How could Romney win the caucuses but Paul win the conventions?
(See also: POLITICO's delegate tracker)
The caucuses — which Romney won handily — are simply the first step in selecting delegates to the national convention, which in modern times has become a highly choreographed coronation of the party’s presidential nominee.
At the caucuses, delegates to the county convention are elected. At the county convention, state delegates are elected. And at the state convention, national delegates are elected.
Generally, it doesn’t matter who actually goes as a delegate because the nominee is already decided.
In this case, Paul’s supporters have decided to see the process through, flooding the conventions at the county and state levels with enough supporters to elect Paul loyalists to the national convention.
But aren’t they subverting the will of the voters?
Romney’s campaign might argue that. Indeed, he won 16,486 votes in the caucus to Paul’s 6,175.
But Paul’s supporters reject the notion that they’re subverting anything, noting they are simply seeing the entire process through. The caucuses and primaries are almost never the last word on who becomes the nominee.
Generally, when one candidate opens up an insurmountable lead, the other candidates will drop out and all of the delegates will back the nominee apparent. Paul is intent on testing the question of: Well, what happens if you don’t drop out?
His effort isn’t entirely unprecedented.
In 2008, the Democratic primary dragged on until summer, with neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton locking up enough delegate wins to determine a clear front-runner.
In that case, both campaigns’ supporters turned out in force to the county and state conventions in Nevada to ensure their opponent didn’t gain an upper hand in the delegate count.
Why does it matter if Paul loyalists go to Tampa?
Paul will send 22 loyalists to Tampa. Romney will send six.
But to win its coveted early caucus state status, Nevada had to promise to make the results of the caucus binding. Under those rules, 20 of the national delegates must vote for Romney on the first round of balloting and eight must vote for Paul.
But if for some reason Romney doesn’t get 1,144 delegate votes at the national convention — or 50 percent — another round of balloting is held and all of the delegates are free to vote for whoever they please.
And wait, there’s more!
If Paul delegates succeed in capturing a majority of delegates from just five states — which they are well on their way to accomplishing — they can nominate Paul from the convention floor.
Of course, they’d still need 1,144 votes to crown him the nominee.
What about Rule 38?
And here enters the endless arguments over how to interpret the Republican Party’s arcane nominating rules.
Rule 38 is a favorite of Paul supporters because it seems to imply that the state is not allowed to bind delegates at all.
Referred to as the Unit Rule, the measure says “no delegate or alternate delegate shall be bound” by any state’s attempt to impose the “unit rule.”
According to Josh Putnam, a scholar on the presidential nominating process at Davidson College in North Carolina, the rule is a throwback from the days when party bosses would strong-arm a state delegation into backing a single candidate.
Most party officials and observers say it doesn’t apply to states that have binding caucuses.
The problem for the Republican National Committee, as Putnam notes, is that the rule is still on the books and opens up an interpretation argument for Paul’s backers.
RNC rules clearly say a delegate can abstain from the vote. Wouldn’t that set Paul loyalists free from voting for Romney?
Well, probably not.
In practice, when a majority of delegates decide they are going to abstain from the nominating vote, that state’s delegation is skipped over in the roll call.
Putnam said the rules aren’t clear what happens after all of the states vote and the skipped states get a second shot at it. If they abstain again, it could create an endless “feedback loop where the convention gets stuck.”
But Nevada Republican Secretary Jim DeGraffenreid notes that the roll-call vote doesn’t allow individual delegates to shout out their vote.
Instead, the delegation chair submits the state’s total. In Nevada’s case, the chair would shout out 20 votes for Romney and eight for Paul.
Any delegate looking to circumvent that bind would likely be replaced by an alternate delegate, DeGraffenreid said. And all of the alternates elected at the state convention are Romney supporters.
So, if Paul’s supporters can’t nominate him, what’s the point of all this work?
First, it’s not totally impossible — highly unlikely, but not out of the realm of possibility — for Paul to put together a patchwork collection of 1,144 national delegates. They could potentially win over delegates from the failed presidential bids of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum or continue on their caucus-state strategy of controlling state conventions.
But in the end, not all of them are convinced that the only victory is the nomination. They want to infuse the Republican Party with Paul’s brand of libertarian, isolationist and small-government politics. With enough supporters at the national convention, they’ll receive national news coverage, could influence the platform and even make life difficult enough for Romney that he’s forced to reach some kind of deal with Paul.
“Romney would have to give something,” said Carl Bunce, Paul’s Nevada chairman. “Who knows what that could be? It depends on how many delegates we get and how much leverage we have.”
Putnam said the RNC and Romney will be highly motivated to avoid any disruption to their choreographed convention.
“This potentially could be very messy for them,” Putnam said. “It would behoove them to come up with whatever they can to avoid that.”