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At the Mason City rally I meet a representative cross-section of Paul devotees: the out-of-state mother from Minnesota, toddler daughter in tow, who likes traveling to show her support for Paul and photographs every crowd, concerned that the news media consistently underestimate his support; the volunteer precinct captain, quick to tell me that as a grassroots volunteer he and his people do what they like to sell Paul, not just what the official campaign asks or wants them to do; the fan of conspiratorial radio personality Alex Jones who carries an old silver certificate in his wallet to remind himself what the Federal Reserve has done to our money; and the gray-haired, Rasta-capped fabricator of vegetable-oil-powered cars who became an unlikely Republican Party precinct chairman because he believes Ron Paul is the only politician who can save the country.
People line up with questions about what they could or should do in these last 24 hours to help push Paul to the top after the candidate leaves. Fielding those questions is David Haas, a Mason City chiropractor and volunteer precinct captain for the campaign. He is handing out a one-page summary of Paul’s positions, a prompt to help Paul fans make the case for him in front of their undecided neighbors at the caucus meetings. The sheet mentions, among other talking points, that Paul is “the only honest and consistent candidate—30 years without a flip-flop,” “will end the wars and bring the troops home,” “will cut $1 trillion in spending in Year 1,” and “warned about the housing bubble in 2003 when all the ‘experts’ were wrong.”
Caucusing in Iowa requires more than just strolling in and casting a vote. Each caucus is a multi-hour meeting, including voting for local party positions and a chance for someone supporting each candidate to make a three-to-five-minute case for his choice. You have to be willing to hang out with a bunch of local Republicans for a couple of hours—and that, as one phone banker tells me in Mason City, is something many independents and Democrats who love Paul refused to do, even for him. (Voting in the caucuses does require officially registering as a Republican, but participants can do so at the meeting itself and switch parties later.)
Waiting for the caucus procedures to begin in an elementary school gym in Precinct 5 in Ankeny, just a mile or so from Paul’s state office, I meet a former Paul supporter, a young local attorney, who decided Paul’s stance against pre-emptive war was too unyielding. (A crisis seemed to be brewing in the Straits of Hormuz in the week before the Iowa vote, which undoubtedly cost Paul some votes from folks who would like to reserve the right to pre-emptively bomb Iran.) A couple of women who shifted in the last week from Michele Bachmann to Rick Santorum (as did many thousands of Iowans) tell me they were disappointed to receive anti-Santorum calls from the Paul campaign; they had believed Paul to be an above-the-fray idea man, not an attack dog. That had indeed been Paul’s M.O. in 2008, and he never criticizes his opponents himself unless asked to do so. But his 2012 campaign sees attacking opponents as necessary to clear a space for Paul among the GOP rank and file by chipping away at Gingrich and Santorum via negative ads and calls.
The presidential caucus vote does not dictate how Iowa’s delegates will vote for the presidential nominee at the Republican National Convention. But the process of delegate selection does begin on caucus night. Those who stayed at the meetings after the presidential vote were the ones who selected delegates for a later county convention, which would then select delegates for a state convention, which would send delegates to the national convention. At both the caucus I witnessed and in other caucuses across the state, I was told, the people most liable to stick it out through that process were fans of Ron Paul. While every caucus state does things a little differently, this fusion of passionate dedication and hardheaded strategy is why Paul people are confident they can punch above their weight in accumulating delegates in caucus states.
As I leave the caucus for the campaign’s result-viewing party, CNN is announcing Paul in the lead in early counts. That doesn’t last long. But the mood at the Courthouse Inn in Ankeny, filled with hundreds of Paul fans and many dozens of journalists, never gets dour. Some locals, shaking their heads over how overwhelmingly Paul won in their precinct’s caucus, make dark suggestions about vote-counting irregularities. In a spontaneous demonstration of the Paul movement’s slow occupation of the Republican Party, I randomly meet in the crowd two sitting state representatives of a Paulite bent, Kim Pearson and Glen Massie, and two Paulite candidates, Matt Devries, running this year for the state House, and Dave Edwards, running for the state Senate.
Paul is perfectly cheery, even after it is clear he has come in third behind Romney and Rick Santorum. In his remarks, Paul maintains that his 21 percent share proves “freedom is popular.” Coming out of the first state with morale intact, the volunteer base still jazzed, and no huge number-one target painted on his back turns out to have its advantages.
New Hampshire, the Free State
The first Paul appearance after the Iowa caucuses is in a hangar at the Nashua, New Hampshire, airport. The side of the road for nearly a mile is lined with cars, many sporting out-of-state plates and Ron Paul bumper stickers. Those arriving 15 minutes early are already too late: They can’t even get in the door. The press has taken over the rear one-sixth of the hangar and are not quite as packed as the rest of the crowd, so I sneak in the back to hear Paul slam the bizarre tyranny of the National Defense Authorization Act, which codifies the president’s authority to detain anyone without trial. (Paul is the only candidate talking about this serious violation of civil liberties.) Everyone filing out afterward is handed a flier about a grassroots Paul activism party operating out of Jillian’s, a Manchester riverside pool hall, all day and night on Saturday.
That event is organized by the Paul-supporting RevolutionPAC. The group’s most prominent work so far is a TV ad featuring a patient of Paul’s, a black man reminiscing about how the obstetrician-gynecologist gave his white wife free medical treatment in the 1970s. The PAC spent $100,000 to have it aired more than 200 times in New Hampshire markets, including three times during one of the two weekend debates before the primary.
From Jillian’s, Paul supporters are dispatched to distribute pamphlets, knock on doors, or wave signs for the candidate. Many are distributing the grassroots “superbrochure,” which violates all the rules of serious professional campaigning by trying to explain everything about Ron Paul in one five-fold pamphlet rather than intelligently targeting the communication to the known or suspected interests of the recipient. Still, volunteers have plenty of stories about people turned on to Paul by the handout.
Paul’s greatest weapon in the Granite State is the Free State Project, which has been promoting the migration of libertarian-minded Americans to New Hampshire since 2003. With about 1,000 new residents to its credit, the group wields measurable political influence, having placed 12 Free Staters in New Hampshire’s 400-member legislature. I talk to one of them, Seth Cohn, a first-termer who moved to the state from Oregon, at the Jillian’s event. While we talk about how Free Staters in the legislature can help shift the parameters of what’s considered outrageous, someone hands us a petition advocating the loosening of raw milk regulations.
Cohn insists on speaking to the person responsible for circulating the petition. A shy young lady comes over. Cohn explains that the petition isn’t necessary; a bill to do this very thing is coming up for a hearing next week. She should bring as many people as she can to testify about it. A Free State–influenced New Hampshire legislature has cut state spending by around 10 percent in the last two-year budget cycle. When Cohn mentions that as a legislator he occasionally has to compromise, a Free Stater pops up before us, as if on cue, to give a stage hiss at the hated word “compromise.”
The New Hampshire libertarians are the most congenial and fun gang of libertarians I’ve met since my college days; ironic but passionate, communal but contentious, willing to put their own bodies on the line (getting arrested, generally for disobeying some dumb order of a cop or judge, is pretty common among the Free Staters and their fellow travelers). Almost all of them opened up their homes and couches and floors to Ron Paul volunteers for days and weeks at a time. One Free State anarchist, who goes by the name Sovereign Curtis and calls Paul his “favorite government thug,” tells me “Ron Paul leads people to anarchism, and that’s why I support Ron Paul.”
On the Monday before the primary, I visit Paul’s state office in Concord. During my half-hour or so waiting in the foyer for his state director, Jared Chicoine, the door never stays shut for more than 15 seconds. Supporters young and old march in demanding door hangers and signs and instructions on where to vote and how they can volunteer to make calls. I get glimpses of the sophisticated system of numerical tracking that defines nearly every step of their process, from knowing which neighborhoods are more copacetic to knowing which volunteers are the best phone workers.