“President Paul! President Paul! President Paul!”
That rhythmic chant, so unlikely even four years ago (let alone 24, when Ron Paul first ran for president, on the Libertarian Party ticket), vibrates through the tightly packed crowd of more than 1,000 supporters jammed into a Best Western conference room near the airport in Manchester, New Hampshire. It is the evening of January 10, and we are there to watch results come in for the first presidential primary of 2012. “I just had multiple Paulgasms,” a New Hampshire activist stage-whispers to me when the candidate wraps up his triumphant speech, equal parts rah-rah political red meat and professorial disquisition on monetary policy.
Ron Paul has not in fact become president. The Texas congressman hasn’t even come within 16 percentage points of the night’s winner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. But Paul did manage an unexpectedly strong second place, winning nearly 23 percent of the vote, despite poll averages the previous five days indicating less than 18 percent support. And by beating former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who had bet his entire campaign on New Hampshire, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who withdrew from the race after receiving less than 1 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, Paul swatted aside two more competitors in a primary season that had already claimed Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), former Godfathers Pizza CEO Herman Cain, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and various high-polling pretenders who never quite got in the ring.
“President Paul! President Paul! President Paul!”
The New Hampshire primary was a milestone on Paul’s five-year journey from obscure curiosity to the controversial conscience—and possible future—of the Republican Party. On the heels of getting 21 percent of the vote in a third-place Iowa caucus finish, Paul had now received more than twice as many votes during primary season as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (who had derided Paul as “outside the mainstream”) and could plausibly claim to be the most viable alternative to Romney, the GOP’s long-anointed front-runner. As of press time in late January, Paul is the only other candidate who definitely has the money, fund-raising ability, and nationwide infrastructure to keep competing against Romney until the Republican National Convention in Tampa this August.
For Ron Paul, a victory in 2012 doesn’t necessarily mean 270 electoral votes, or even 1144 delegates to the Republican convention. Unlike most candidates, Paul can succeed in a run for president without winning, by changing the establishment’s attitudes toward his libertarian stances. This unusual position provokes taunts from journalists and Republican establishmentarians alike. Don’t Paul and his delusional supporters know he can’t win?
Paul doesn’t expect to win, necessarily. He’s a sober, reasonably calculating politician with decades of experience pushing radical libertarian ideas. When ABC News asked the candidate in January if he sees himself in the Oval Office when he lays his head down at night, he replied, “Not really.” Yes, Paul keeps winning re-election to his seat representing Texas’ 14th Congressional District, generally by a wider margin each time. But the national GOP had little room for his constitutionalist libertarianism in a decade of George W. Bush, the PATRIOT Act, and nonstop overseas wars. That was exactly the reason Paul decided to run for president in 2008.
Beating expectations in New Hampshire this year gave the Paul campaign hope, confirming the logic of a long-shot political strategy that seemed to be falling into place. The key to whatever success Paul will have is his very public weapon: the supporters in the Best Western ballroom and all the people like them around the country.
Ron Paul does not have just voters; he has activists. Many observers have underestimated Paul’s electoral ceiling precisely because of this energetically loyal base, arguing that the folks on street corners waving homemade Paul signs or flooding every online poll that includes the name Paul constitute all his potential voters. But the 83,000 people who voted for Paul in Iowa and New Hampshire (30,000 more than voted for the third-place candidate, former Sen. Rick Santorum) would not exactly all fit in Mom’s basement. The movement now dwarfs the already impressive Ron Paul rEVOLution of 2008. America hasn’t seen such a youthful, driven, hopeful, radical youth cadre driving a political campaign since, well, Barack Obama in 2008.
Paul’s Ticket out of Iowa
Even though Romney solidified his position in New Hampshire, the Manchester ballroom feels like a victory party, and not just because Paul trounced all non-Romneys in the field. The volunteers are celebrating their victory. They have all put in days, often weeks, working for this result. Most helped with the official campaign’s favorite activity: phone banking, calling to identify Paul supporters and making sure they vote on primary day.
Calling, and calling, and calling. In both New Hampshire and Iowa I hear anecdotes about overcalling, of some voters feeling so harassed by three or more calls per day for weeks from Paul’s people that they vow not to vote for him. (Paul campaign higher-ups are confident that they’d lose more votes from not calling as aggressively as they possibly could than they lose from pissing off a handful of potential voters.) Paul had callers working phone banks from his actual campaign offices, as well as around the country via the campaign’s “Phone From Home” project, which by itself contacted more than 100,000 people.
Those same techniques are ready to roll out in other states. There probably won’t be the same numbers of college-age kids on Ron Paul road trips available as the primary season moves past winter break. But every person I talk to on returns night in New Hampshire says he intends to do what he can for the campaign in other states. I ask one man from Massachusetts if he knows whether the campaign in South Carolina, the next primary state, is ready to take on a wave of volunteers. “They better be!” he replies. “Because we are coming.”
In Iowa the Paul campaign worked retail politics thoroughly, spent millions of dollars on TV ads, did lots of mail and radio, and arranged more than 100 candidate appearances in the months-long buildup to the caucuses, including a five-event day right before the vote with Paul’s son, Tea Party favorite Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).
I catch the last speech of the day, in the back room of the Prime and Wine restaurant in Mason City. Rand is smoother than Ron, with a presentation more carefully designed to appeal to the standard right wing. His father sticks mostly to big principles about liberty and sound money, and he will utter right-wing heresies about peace and trying to understand how other countries react to American behavior overseas. Rand, meanwhile, tells Reader’s Digest–style jokes about Washington profligacy and focuses on pettier government spending inefficiencies. He is far more likely to play the nationalist card, complaining that the Chinese are “cleaning our clocks” while we give them aid.