Ron Paul is aiming high in Saturday’s Nevada caucus. The conventional wisdom states that Mitt Romney has the Silver State and its 28 nominating delegates in his pocket, following his massive 51% share of the vote in the 2008 primary. Four years ago, Paul came in second with just 14%. Still, the Paul campaign has been playing hard in Nevada while other candidates were traipsing across Florida, and campaign manager Jesse Benton believes they’ll be rewarded. “We have a shot at first place,” he says.
Paul might have a shot, but polls suggest it’s not a good one. A survey released by the University of Nevada on Thursday showed Paul in fourth place with 9% of likely caucus-goers’ support, compared to Romney’s 45%; one quarter broke for Gingrich, 11% for Rick Santorum. Of the Mormon’s polled, 86% said they were casting ballots for Romney; only 1% cited Paul as their man. A survey from left-leaning Public Policy Polling, released on Friday, put Paul in third place, taking 15% of the vote, to Romney’s 50%, Gingrich’s 25% and Santorum’s 8%.
There’s also a potential demographic disadvantage built in: a big chunk of caucus votes on Saturday will come from Mormons. In 2008, about a quarter of caucus-goers were Mormons, and they broke 95% for Romney. The only religious group that Paul won was “no religion.” But Team Paul is hoping to change things this year.
“[Mormons] have a natural attraction to someone who is a member of their church, but I think philosophically and politically, they’re much closer to Dr. Paul,” Benton says. “Mormons are very, very committed to Constitutional government [and] Mormons are much more politically conservative than governor Romney.” The Paul campaign has sent out many press releases touting “LDS for Ron Paul” supporters in recent weeks—even if the polls don’t show them making much of a dent.
Long odds are what Paul is used to. He’s been campaigning in Maine, where a win in the caucus that ends Feb. 11 does not guarantee any delegates. After Nevada, he’ll head to Minnesota and on to other minor states like North Dakota, Missouri, Colorado and Louisiana. “We play our hand,” Benton says, “and we play our hand to win.” Even when it looks like they won’t.