“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.

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. 

Kate Baker, a New Hampshire Paul activist whom I interviewed for my forthcoming book Ron Paul’s Revolution the previous fall, is joyfully playing the role she calls “the goon”—blocking people from going where they shouldn’t go, directing them to where they should. No one in the office knows everyone, but she comes close. Volunteers wear “freedom fighter” laminates marking them as insiders. Four different people ask me what I’m doing there as I lurk in the foyer.

The campaign’s New Hampshire press officer, Kate Schackai, walks me through the downstairs call center, where a couple dozen kids are sitting at long tables. When someone gets a promise to vote for Paul tomorrow, the caller rings a bell. When I ask Chicoine later about another big room of phones I had been told was upstairs, he seems annoyed that I know about it. A member of the Free State Project, Neal Conner, starts telling me what he is doing for the campaign when we run into each other in the foyer; later he was upbraided for it by campaign officials.

The people running the campaign are very serious about message discipline and controlling what is revealed to the press; they don’t want volunteers talking to reporters without clearance. That’s a shame, because a legend-in-the-making political story is going on here, one that stars not Ron Paul but these dedicated, funny, excited, mostly young people. The campaign asks volunteers not to write about what they are doing for the campaign on social network sites. One volunteer at the Concord office tells of a friend who everyone thought had gone missing because he disappeared behind the Paul campaign’s wall of silence. 

By the day before the New Hampshire primary, Paul, who plausibly complained about a media blackout in 2008, is so besieged by reporters that he has to cut short a visit to a diner. I arrive to find his van completely surrounded by dozens of reporters and cameras for 20 minutes, unable to move. A woman who was upset because the press crush prevented her from having her 90-year-old mother meet the candidate becomes the Paul story of the morning. By afternoon, Paul is speaking to an invitation-only group of 200 or so, mostly homeschooling families, in Hollis. Peace, liberty, sound money, spending cuts; the kids and their parents eat it up.

The morning of the primary, Paul, his wife, and some staffers make a few low-key visits to polling places. In the parking lot of a voting location in Nashua, a Comcast technician named Jerry Castaldo shakes Paul’s hand and tells him, everything you warned about, with the housing crisis and the bubble and the wars—it all came true.

At the first site we visit, Paul’s campaign is the only one represented by poll watchers, who are armed with lists of likely Paul voters in the precinct to check against arrivals; they make calls and offer rides to stragglers. The lists were hand-delivered to volunteers across the state the night before. One activist tells me she was given the wrong list for her precinct. Despite a slip or two like that, Paul’s operation comes through, and he beats most pre-election polls by five percentage points.

The Next Crusade

Paul’s campaign had offices operating in 11 states as of the week before the January 21 South Carolina primary. Its strategy aimed to maximize delegates rather than popular vote totals, which meant spending more time and effort on caucus states (like Maine) rather than winner-take all primary states (like Florida). Paul’s people had not given up hope of winning some states outright, with Maine, Nevada, Louisiana, and Washington state the leading possibilities. 

Paul’s supporters are determined to prove themselves such a powerful part of the Republican coalition that the party will not be able to block them out as it did in 2008 (which inspired Paul to run a counter-convention across town from the official show in Minneapolis-St. Paul). By mid-January of 2012, Paul was tied for No. 2 in some national polls with Gingrich—but because Gingrich was losing support to Santorum and Romney, not because Paul was gaining much.

To maintain the momentum of the first two states, Paul has to start attracting voters who peel off from Gingrich and Santorum. On one level, that shouldn’t be too hard: You could sell Paul as the ultimate hard-right conservative, a man of flinty integrity and unimpeachable pro-life credentials who wants no government benefits for illegal aliens, thinks the Constitution should be the final word on government action, and wants eventually to end the entitlement state. 

In Iowa exit polls, Paul came in second among those who “strongly support” the Tea Party and third among those who “somewhat support” it. Santorum won both categories. Based on the belief that Tea Party types are sincere about cutting spending, Paul’s campaign hit Santorum after his surprise rise to prominence in Iowa with ads in New Hampshire and South Carolina painting him as a big-spending faker.

In New Hampshire exit polls, Paul was second behind Romney among those who strongly or somewhat support the Tea Party. (That Tea Party identifiers are able to get behind the progenitor of RomneyCare might mean the label is past its sell-by date.) But in a sign that Paul might appeal to GOP primary voters in a straight matchup against Romney, Paul won among those whose most important candidate qualities were “true conservative” and “strong moral character.”

Some New Hampshire exit poll results are encouraging for the future of Paulism. He won among those who had never voted in a GOP primary before—that is, potential new blood for the GOP in the general election against Obama. As in Iowa, Paul won handily among 18-to-29-year-olds. Less noted, he also won among 30-to-39-year-olds. If Paul were a television show, he would be the advertisers’ favorite. If the GOP wants to have a future after its senior citizens drop off, it needs to address the concerns of the Paul armies. Paul also won among those who self-identify as independent and was second, behind Huntsman, among those who self-identify as Democrat.

In another indication that Paul and Paulism have unexpectedly wide appeal for Republicans, although Paul is himself anti-abortion and thinks it’s fine for states to ban the procedure, he won among those who called themselves “very liberal” on abortion. And despite libertarianism’s reputation as a tool for plutocrats, Paul won New Hampshire among those earning less than $30,000 a year and was tied with Romney among the under-$50,000 crowd. Evidently Paul’s small-government, low-tax, minimal-redistribution message has appeal beyond the monocle-wearing set.

Paul’s campaign manager, John Tate, formerly with the Right to Work Committee, has solid right-wing credentials. He is confident that in the area where libertarianism and conservatism should overlap most, fiscal responsibility, the Tea Party people will see that Paul, with his consistent record of never voting for an unbalanced budget and his plan calling for $1 trillion in cuts in the first year, the elimination of five federal departments, and a balanced budget with no tax hikes in three years, is preferable to Romney. If Paul can win most of the not-Romney vote, actual victory is not impossible. A mid-January ABC News/Washington Post poll asked Republican-leaning registered voters if there were any candidate they absolutely would not vote for. Paul—not surprisingly, given his radicalism and far-outside-the-GOP-mainstream foreign policy—was in the lead, at 26 percent. But that still left him a 74 percent ceiling of possible support, in addition to a whole universe of young and independent voters available in a match-up against Barack Obama.

What makes such a scenario very unlikely is both Paul’s general aura of anti-establishment weirdness and his foreign policy stance, which focuses on the promotion of free trade but shuns military intervention not in direct defense of the homeland. The eccentricity factor seems to be either slowly dissolving or coming to be seen as a feature rather than a bug by more and more Americans who are sick of the status quo. Paul received endorsements from some prominent South Carolina Tea Partiers such as state Sen. Tom Davis (R-Beaufort). U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said in the leadup to the South Carolina primary that Paul’s “libertarian principles are the conscience of the Republican Party,” although he stopped short of an endorsement. Despite these signs of GOP respectability, Paul and his fans still enjoy playing the insurrectionists, delighting in identifying themselves as “dangerous to the status quo,” as Paul put it in his speech in New Hampshire on the night of the primary.

Handling the foreign policy objection will be trickier. To many in the media and among his progressive fans, Paul’s noninterventionist foreign policy is the single most important thing about his campaign. In September he told a lunch crowd at a convention of the Paulist Campaign for Liberty that he views foreign policy as his central reason for running. 

Paul’s campaign staffers know foreign policy is his weak point with Republican voters and could be a weak point even against Obama, if it came to that. The official door hanger for New Hampshire had six subheadings, and foreign policy wasn’t one of them—although ending foreign wars was listed as one of many “spending” issues. The campaign’s phone bankers find that the most important issues for Paul supporters are overwhelmingly the economy, jobs, and spending. 

But in the big debates leading up to South Carolina, Paul still refused to be triumphalist about how the U.S. killed Osama bin Laden. He still invoked the Golden Rule as a touchstone for U.S. foreign policy. He still argued that a nuclear-armed Iran can be contained just as a nuclear-armed Soviet Union was contained and that there is no need to start a war over the issue. Paul’s refusal to be anyone but Paul is why most of his fans love him. It is also why he may indeed have a ceiling of GOP support.

Paul is not trying to explain himself in a way that mollifies jingoistic Republicans. But at his New Hampshire results party, his state campaign chairman, state Sen. Jim Forsythe, summed up Paul’s foreign policy with a slogan that could appeal to many Republicans: “A foreign policy of defense for America.” Judging from Paul’s 21 percent in Iowa and 23 percent in New Hampshire, this idea appeals to many voters, across party and ideological lines. Paul seems to have known better than the rest of the world that there was a good rationale for running in 2008 and a better one to run again in 2012.

At an impromptu press conference after a packed-to-the-gills town hall in Meredith, New Hampshire, the weekend before the primary, Paul was asked about his strategy to win. “I’m not very good at answering questions like that about strategy,” he said, “because I keep thinking: I do the same thing, over and over!” And he does. He talks about liberty, debt, inflation, and peace. And the more he does it, the more people listen. 

Senior Editor Brian Doherty is the author of the forthcoming book Ron Paul's Revolution: The Man and the Movement He Inspired (Broadside).