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Can the Romney Campaign Co-opt the Ron Paul Movement? Fat Chance

When Ron Paul released a statement earlier this week informing supporters that “moving forward … we will no longer spend resources campaigning in primary states that have not yet voted,” it was easy to imagine Mitt Romney’s campaign staff quietly rejoicing. The Congressman’s staff was quick to clarify that he was not officially suspending his efforts for the nomination, but it was hard to see this as anything other than the end of the Paul campaign—and, in turn, the beginning of Romney’s cooptation of it. 

As Barack Obama’s campaign proved in 2008 after its bruising primary fight against Hillary Clinton, a party that’s been unified in time for the national convention is its own reward. But bringing Paul’s supporters into the fold would also seem to have a special attraction for the Romney campaign: The Massachusetts governor earned plenty of votes in the primary, but he never quite inspired the enthusiasm of the Paul movement, which has regularly attracted thousands of committed supporters to rallies. It’s only reasonable for Romney to hope he can transfer some of that fervor—especially from young people, a demographic President Obama himself seems to be targeting—to his own campaign.

Having spoken with a wide swathe of young Paul voters, however, I’ve learned that’s an exceedingly unlikely proposition. Paul may have been running for the Republican nomination, but what he produced was a movement whose identity revolves around his own personality and his professed libertarian ideology. It’s a movement with hardly any affinity for the GOP—and for a man like Romney least of all.

It’s telling that Paul supporters almost uniformly refer to Paul’s bid for the presidency as a “movement” or “revolution,” rather than a “campaign.” To ask about their allegiance to the party is, for many of them, to make a category mistake. “It’s not a matter of partisan politics,” says Casey Given, an organizer for the University of California Berkeley chapter of the Youth for Ron Paul group. “It’s more about the ideas than the party.” Indeed, a common refrain among Ron Paul supporters is that the Republican Party needs to be rebuilt from the ground up.

Generally, Paul’s supporters speak of his campaign as something more akin to a political science or philosophy seminar, than a campaign for public office. Paul’s message has always encouraged his supporters to believe there’s much more at stake than temporary occupancy of the Oval Office. “It’s not designed to win votes, it’s designed to illuminate the right path forward for both the U.S. and its role in the world and how we manage the economy,” says Jacob Arluck, an organizer for Cornell University’s Youth for Ron Paul chapter.

In the words of Cliff Maloney, the former Pennsylvania Campus Coordinator for the Paul campaign, who has since been hired by Paul’s congressional office, “They don’t want anybody that’s going to give them rhetoric, they want someone that will give them the truth.” And, having been given access to the “truth,” Paul’s supporters are refusing to abandon their candidate. “They will stick with him until he says he drops out of the race or when he wins the race,” Maloney says. “[Ron Paul supporters] would do anything for Dr. Paul’s message.”

But even if they’re reconciled to the fact that Paul won’t win this year, many young voters don’t think of their support for Paul as a lost cause. The college-aged students who comprise the Paul campaign’s base was attracted to him in part because they hoped even if he didn’t win him the election, his organization could at least shape the political discourse for years down the line. “Being the party of old white rich men will not be a winning strategy in the future,” says Given. But that’s a strategy that depends on their staying firm to their principles and not transferring their allegiance to another candidate this year. “After 2012 is over, the Republican Party is going to have no choice but to realize that the future of the party is in more of a classically conservative libertarian direction,” says Pinter. “That’s where the youth is voting.”

Unsurprisingly, then, when I asked Paul supporters whether they would be voting for Romney this year, every single one of them said definitely not, and they insisted other Paul supporters they know wouldn’t either. “I think it would be very difficult for Ron Paul supporters to sleep at night and support someone that represents a lot of the principles that they disagree with,” said Tyler Koteskey, who called Romney a “liberal in conservative sheepskin.” Indeed, for some, the very suggestion that they might vote for Romney was an insult. “Personally, I would not vote for Romney,” said Mike Pinter of UC Davis. “I have conservative principles that can, under no circumstances, rationalize a vote for Romney.”

Needless to say, Barack Obama faced nothing like these challenges when he wooed disaffected Hillary supporters in 2008. Paul’s fans, it seems, will insist on continuing to divide the GOP, unless, and until, they can take it over entirely.

Eric Wen is an intern at The New Republic.