When Can We Call Ron Paul’s Caucus Strategy a Bust?

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For a guy with a grim worldview, Ron Paul is great at spotting the green shoots when it comes to his own political fortunes. When he fell to third in Iowa, he told the crowd that “we are going to keep scoring.” In New Hampshire, he told supporters that their “irate minority” was “going to continue to grow by leaps and bounds.” After finishing fourth of four in Florida, he declared, “We have only gotten started.”

This knack for spinning disappointments has seeped into Paul’s press coverage. Pundits can spend hours blistering Mitt Romney for his failure to lock the nomination up already. Far fewer tut-tutted when Paul slipped to third in Nevada, a libertarian-leaning caucus state that should be in his wheelhouse. The Texas Congressman spent more time than any competitor in Minnesota, whose caucuses are the kind of low-turnout affair where his committed fan base are supposed to shine. Instead, Rick Santorum pummeled Paul by 18 points. He finished third in non-binding contests in Colorado and Missouri. Politico called it his “best night of the year” and argued the results “validated the Texas congressman’s strategy of focusing on caucus states at a critical moment.”

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In the Republican Party, this is known as the soft bigotry of low expectations. Paul is the only GOP candidate in the field yet to win a state. He didn’t win one in 2008, either. For all his vaunted caucus prowess, he’s now 0 for 4 in caucus states. Addressing supporters on Tuesday night, Paul again slapped an upbeat spin on a missed opportunity. “We do have to remember: the straw vote is one thing, but then there’s a whole other thing — delegates — and that is where we excel,” he said.

How so? According to the AP’s delegate projection, Romney more than doubles the delegate tally of his nearest competitor, racking up 107 to Santorum’s 45. Then comes Gingrich with 32. Paul has nine. CNN’s projections are slightly more generous, but Paul still runs dead last in delegates with 20, less than a fifth of Romney’s total. Jesse Benton, Paul’s campaign chairman, didn’t immediately respond to a query about how Paul intends to close this gap. Maybe the unbound delegates will break in his favor. But for Paul to become a credible contender for the nomination, he must at some point demonstrate an ability to win.

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Paul admitted as much on Tuesday in an interview with radio host Scott Hennen. “I think you really need to,” he said. “You can hardly get enough delegates if you don’t start winning some. That remains to be seen.”

None of this suggests Paul’s campaign has been for naught. He is improving on his 2008 totals and padding his base of support. Americans of all political stripes are buying into Paul’s worldview, a mix of constitutional governance, individual liberty, Austrian economics and non-interventionist foreign policy. Paul has never admitted it, but plenty of people have long suspected that his primary motivation in mounting a third bid for the presidency was not to occupy the Oval Office, but to preach this gospel from a floodlit spot on the national stage. When I profiled Paul for TIME last summer, I argued that he is better understood as a political prophet than as a conventional candidate. Through that prism, his campaign has been a smash success.

But from an electoral standpoint? Not so much.