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Paul’s big numbers grind to halt

One of the things Ron Paul and his supporters cite when asked about how the public is reacting to the Texas congressman’s message is the numbers.

Thus far in balloting — not counting the trio of states that voted Tuesday — Paul has received nearly 170,000 more votes than he did in 2008.

In Iowa, he got more than 14,000 more votes than four years ago. In New Hampshire, more than 38,000. In South Carolina, more than 62,000. And in Florida, he got more than 54,000.

But in Nevada, Paul only added 91 votes to his 2008 tally.

What happened?

Before you say “voter fraud,” let’s keep in mind that no one has presented any reliable evidence. (There is, by contrast, plenty of evidence of bungling the vote count, which is a much different thing.) And let’s also keep in mind that Paul’s Nevada campaign director, Carl Bunce, said he was satisfied with the count.

So how else to explain why Paul, who earned 6,084 votes in 2008, only managed to get 6,175 this year, falling into third place behind Newt Gingrich?

It’s not as if Nevada is unfriendly to Paul’s message. In fact, Nevada is tailor-made for Paul’s message. Our brand of conservatives lean strongly to the libertarian, small-government, leave-us-alone branch of the Republican Party.

It’s not as if Paul wasn’t organized: His Nevada outfit has been strong and committed ever since Republican Party officials unconscionably shut down the 2008 state convention rather than let Paul’s supporters — who’d followed the rules — have a victory in selecting delegates.

It’s also not as if Paul didn’t try: He campaigned in Elko, Reno, Las Vegas and Pahrump in the days leading up to the caucus. He met with Hispanics in Politics and Filipino American war veterans. He even sat down for an interview with me.

And it’s not as if Paul’s message has changed since 2008. In fact, Paul’s message hasn’t changed since 1988, when he first ran for president as a Libertarian.

So what happened? Why didn’t Paul beat Gingrich for second?

First, 2012 was a different race than 2008. Four years ago, only Romney and Paul seriously campaigned in the state, which Romney won. Eventual nominee John McCain wrote off Nevada.

But this year, four candidates contested the state. Some votes that went to Gingrich and Santorum would obviously otherwise have gone to Paul. The fact that Gingrich won South Carolina going away — and that he’s fighting hard to collect anti-Romney conservative votes — no doubt cut into Paul’s lead. And since fewer people showed up this year — 33,000 — versus four years ago, there were fewer overall voters from which to draw.

And there’s the electability factor. As the campaign rolls on, more and more voters are trying to assess which candidate could best defeat President Barack Obama, regardless of a candidate’s ideology. That kind of thinking always hurts Paul, whose message is pure, but whose chances of success in a general election are not seen as high. That’s why his backers often remind voters they’re not betting on a horse race when they cast a ballot.

There’s also the notion of caucus confusion. Many voters who didn’t understand the caucus process showed up after voting had concluded, thinking they could vote anytime between 9 a.m. and noon. Paul’s supporters have the reputation of being better organized than most, but newer fans may have been tripped up.

Finally, there’s the possibility Paul has hit his Nevada ceiling, that until the state switches to a primary system, which would boost turnout, he’s always destined to capture the same small but dedicated minority of Nevada voters.

Regardless of why, it’s undeniable there were many disappointed Paul supporters — and even some surprised pundits — when the long, slow count of caucus ballots was finally done.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/SteveSebelius or reach him at 387-5276 or SSebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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