Ron Paul lost out on the Republican nomination for the presidency. Mitt Romney won the nomination, but then lost in the general election. So neither one will be president, assuming Romney's political career is basically done. So the outcome is the same for them as far as attaining the highest office in the land.
So with everything over for them, at least as far as elections are concerned, which individual has had the greater impact? For me, the answer is obvious.
Mitt Romney did not really inspire anyone. He did not convert people's thinking. He did not use persuasion to convince some people to become Republicans or to change their philosophical outlook. Romney was simply the Republican nominee against an incumbent Democrat who is mostly despised within the Republican Party. When it comes down to it, most of the people who voted for Romney were really just voting against Obama.
Meanwhile, while Ron Paul did not get near as many votes in the primaries, and he certainly did not have backing from the establishment, he did have a profound impact on many lives. Ron Paul's campaigns in 2007/2008 and 2011/2012 inspired hundreds of thousands of people, or perhaps millions. He converted people to a philosophy of liberty. Many of these people will now be libertarians for the rest of their lives.
Paul's presidential runs were never about getting elected. I assume that he already knew this. I don't know how many of his supporters knew this or even know it now.
I constantly hear some libertarians talking about electing the right people into office. Unfortunately, they just don't understand what it takes to achieve liberty. At the very least, they are putting the cart before the horse. If you are going to elect a large number of liberty-minded individuals and if you are going to hold their feet to the fire once they are in office, then you must have a large group of dedicated libertarians who stand on principle. It doesn't necessarily have to be a majority, but it does have to be a significant minority.
Achieving liberty is not about electing the right people into office. It is about changing hearts and minds. It is about persuasion. It is about convincing others of the moral and pragmatic superiority of liberty. It is about educating others on what it means to be a principled libertarian. Without this step, the so-called right people will never be elected into office.
This lesson should also be learned by the Libertarian Party in general. I think it is a good idea to run a candidate for president, but that is because it is an opportunity for media exposure that no one else can get. It is an opportunity for the party to educate others on the benefits of liberty. It is not about electing a Libertarian Party member to the presidency.
Gary Johnson just broke the one million vote mark for the first time for the Libertarian Party (although Ed Clark received a higher percentage in 1980). But this doesn't mean that much to people outside of libertarian circles. It is perhaps symbolic that the libertarian movement is stronger now. But it does not mean that Gary Johnson did a good job in his campaign on converting people to libertarianism through education. It can't mean that, since Johnson himself was learning what it meant to be a libertarian while he was campaigning.
Harry Browne received less than half a million votes in the 1996 election and again in the 2000 election. Yet he had a far more lasting impact than someone like Gary Johnson. Harry Browne actually converted people to libertarianism for life. He had no hopes for winning the presidency and he said that numerous times. His focus was on educating others.
The lesson here is simple. You shouldn't be convincing your friend to vote for someone like Ron Paul or Gary Johnson. You should be focusing on introducing libertarian ideas to your friend that may have a lasting impact.
In 50 years, what will Romney's legacy be? People just being born now may not even know him. He will be known in the history books as a one-term governor who lost his presidential bid.
Ron Paul will not be best known as someone who lost in his runs for the presidency. He will be known as someone who sparked a fire of liberty and peaceful revolution in the hearts and minds of millions of people for many generations to come.