Is the Republican Party going to have a PUMA problem on their hands during their national nominating convention? I'm not, of course, referring to the possibility that mountain lions will be stalking folks inside the convention center, but rather that a group of folks under the "Party Unity, My Ass!" banner will disrupt what is supposed to be a well-scripted and well-choreographed coronation.
I actually wrote about this possibility way back at the beginning of February, when only four states had voted in the Republican primary season. Back then, the possibility still existed for Newt Gingrich to be the instigator of such a movement. But even then, I admitted that this likely wouldn't happen: "For all Newt Gingrich's bluster, he'll likely drop out of the race long before the convention, which will give the party time to reconcile before they're on center stage."
But the other possible leader of such a factional split I mentioned was Ron Paul. And Ron Paul is not going to go very gently into that good night, so to speak. Ron Paul's supporters are -- very quietly -- making an astonishing (and mostly successful) attempt at gaming the entire Republican Party system. Paul supporters are getting themselves named as delegates to the convention in disproportionate numbers to Paul's actual vote totals. This has so alarmed the state party organizations that they are stooping to some very questionable tactics to stem the Ron Paul tide.
The Paul delegates are supposed to -- on the first round of voting -- be "bound" by their state to vote for a certain candidate, usually through some proportion of the votes won in the primaries. The question now striking fear into the hearts of Republicans is: "Will they stay bound?" Will they vote for Paul just to cause a ruckus, or will they vote as instructed?
The label "PUMA" was born out of disappointment at Hillary Clinton's loss to Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary battle. It was massively hyped by the media, and then during the convention this predicted Democratic revolt simply did not appear. But there is a big difference between the 2008 Clintonistas and the Ron Paul crowd today -- after the primaries were all over, Hillary Clinton conceded to Obama, offered up her support for Obama, and repeatedly instructed her own supporters to throw their support to Obama as well. This even made for some very moving moments during the convention, which showed the country that the Democrats had indeed united behind their candidate.
But it's tough to see Ron Paul following the same trajectory. Will he come out and endorse Mitt Romney? Perhaps... after leveraging his support into a prime-time speaking slot at the convention. Or perhaps not -- guessing what Ron Paul is going to do next is always a tough proposition.
Hillary Clinton followers weren't really an ideological "wing" of the Democratic Party, whereas Ron Paul's supporters are what used to be called the "libertarian wing" of the Republican Party. To put it another way, Clinton and Obama weren't all that ideologically different. Paul and Romney are. Paul's followers may be more tied to their own ideology than they are to the Republican Party's ideology as a whole. It's a lot more believable that a goodly portion of the Ron Paul supporters will vote in November for the Libertarian Party candidate rather than Romney -- where it was almost inconceivable that Clinton supporters would actually pull the lever for John McCain (Obama's real worry was that they would just stay home and not vote). The political PUMA dynamic is different this time around.
The 2012 presidential campaign is Ron Paul's swansong. He is not running to keep his House seat. It's tough to imagine him ever running for any political office after 2012. He has built a following which is strongly supportive of him and his goals, and speculation is that he's looking to hand this ready-made support group off to his son Rand, who is now in the Senate. But the Ron Paul followers are an independent bunch. It is conceivable they might allow Rand to pick up the baton from Ron in the future. But it's an open question whether -- even if Ron Paul told them to -- they would support Mitt Romney in any way. As I said, they're known for their independence.
Mitt Romney and the Republican Party establishment are currently in a bind over what to do with Ron Paul at the convention. Their preference would likely be to toss Paul the bone of having some influence over the party platform document. After all, nobody but the truly wonky ever actually reads such documents, and they almost never have any effect on either the election race or what happens afterwards. They are the purest of red meat for the party base, and nothing more, to put it cynically. So, sure, let Ron Paul run rampant with the party platform -- what could it hurt?
But Romney's team would really rather prefer Paul not speak to the convention in prime time. In fact, they'd really rather not have him speak at all. If forced, they'd like to give him something like an 8:30 A.M. speaking slot, when everyone's having breakfast and all the news media is still fighting hangovers from the night before.
That may prove to be impossible if the crowd on the convention floor is packed with Ron Paul supporters. The more Romney is seen as trying to sweep Ron Paul under a convenient rug, the more angry those delegates are going to be -- and, by logical extension, the more likely they'd be to cause some serious mischief on the floor of the convention itself.
The chances of such mischief are anyone's guess, right now. The party machinery actually has all kinds of tools at its disposal to quell such a rebellion, and you can bet there will be some epic battles in the "rules committee" for the convention.
But, in the end, will the Republican Party actually have a PUMA problem at their convention? The biggest caveat is that the Hillary PUMA media hype in 2008 simply did not live up to what happened. And Republicans who don't support Ron Paul will be absolutely unified in their desire to deny Barack Obama a second term. They may far outweigh anything Ron Paul's people can do. Still, the ominous prospect of a convention floor packed with Ron Paul supporters must surely be giving a lot of folks in the Romney campaign (and in Republican Party headquarters) some headaches, and some sleepless nights.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant