Ron Paul ran for president and lost.

“We knew going in it was a longshot,” says Dimitri Kesari, who coordinated state efforts for the 12-term (over three separate stints) Texas congressman’s second and final GOP primary campaign. “If victory was to happen, everything had to line up perfectly.”

That had to begin in Iowa, the first stop on the long slog to the Republican nomination. With over $1 million spent on TV, more than 100 candidate appearances, and more than 300 campaign-managed volunteers, Ron Paul’s people attacked the Hawkeye State, and the race in general, with a unique strategy. Rather than focus on winning the popular vote—the so-called beauty contest—the campaign took advantage of differing rules in the primaries and caucuses to maximize the number of delegates it could take to August’s Republican National Convention (RNC) in Tampa. Iowa, with its arcane, multi-stage caucus process, would be the ideal early laboratory for seeing whether Paulite enthusiasm could overrun GOP machine politics as usual.

And there was a longer-term strategy as well: “We were doing it for a movement,” says Kesari, a former organizer from National Right to Work. “Our first goal was building the army, and the second goal is to win.”

Paul came tantalizingly close in Iowa, finishing behind the nearly tied Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney by just 3,000 votes, or 2.5 percentage points. The margin was close enough to breed suspicions of vote-counting irregularities among Paul supporters, but large enough in strategic terms to have some staffers declare the race over before it started. “The campaign was lost on January 3,” one disappointed mid-level campaign operative told me.

The irony is that, despite the fact that Mitt Romney was declared the victor on voting day and a recount gave the vote to Santorum two weeks later, it turned out Ron Paul actually did win Iowa, at least in the only currency honored at the RNC. Paul’s people worked the caucus process so diligently and intelligently that they eventually snapped up 21 of Iowa’s 25 delegates.

To win a primary, presidential campaigns need only motivate enough voters to spend 20 minutes or so driving to a polling place and casting a vote. Winning delegates in a caucus requires dedication over the course of months, sitting or standing through a series of often tedious day-long meetings with fellow Republicans. It’s a game where the depth of feeling for a candidate counts for more than its breadth. Over the course of the fight, Paul supporters seized many positions of authority within the Iowa Republican Party. The new state chair of the Iowa GOP, A.J. Spiker, started out as a higher-up in Paul’s Iowa campaign team, for instance.

Paul came in a strong second in the New Hampshire primary the next week, and many of his lower-ranked foes, such as Herman Cain and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), dropped out. But winter break was over, and the masses of students willing to phone-bank for Paul scattered to campus quads across the nation. The campaign was never again able to repeat its Iowa/New Hampshire–level of call saturation in later states. 

As Dr. No heads into the political wilderness (see “Ron Paul’s Farewell Address to Congress,” page 24), a close reading of his final campaign may tell us more about where the GOP—and the country—are headed than Mitt Romney’s forgettable failure in the general election.

Spring Backward

Paul’s caucus-focused delegate strategy, which the campaign had been open about from the beginning, was painted by the media and his competitors as being somehow sneaky or disreputable. As he started converting second-place voting-day totals into first-place delegate-acquisitions in early states such as Maine and Minnesota, some observers began to fret that maybe the whole caucus process needed to be re-thought. A Fox News website headline in May described Paul’s delegate strategy as a plan to “hijack” the convention. GOP consultant Bob Haus complained to the Huffington Post that month that Paul’s delegate victories in Iowa were “costing the state a lot of credibility.”

But from the Paul point of view, the only underhanded behavior was coming from the establishment GOP. In April, the Alaska Republican Party changed its filing deadline for its state convention at the last minute, preventing some Paul delegates from getting their paperwork in on time. In Maine, a Romney operative was distributing fake slates of Paul delegates at its state convention to confuse voters. And at a Missouri caucus in St. Charles in March, police helicopters were called in after a row that ended in the arrests of two Paul supporters. 

By late spring, these procedural squabbles were beginning to resemble holdovers from a war that had already been lost. The Paul project at this point seemed less a political campaign and more a campus speaking tour. He spoke to more than 100,000 college students at more than 30 colleges over the course of his campaign. I saw him at UCLA in April where an overflow audience of 7,000 anticipated his applause lines and networked their own budding plans to further the revolution, whether from within or without the Republican Party apparatus. Paul’s biggest draw that spring was at traditionally left-leaning Berkeley, where 8,500 came to hear him criticize the Federal Reserve and never-ending war. 

The septuagenarian obstetrician at this point was battling President Barack Obama to a draw in one-on-one national polls. And by late April, the remaining non-Romney candidates, Santorum and Newt Gingrich, had dropped out. The presidential field was finally where the campaign always hoped it would be: just Romney and Paul, with huge prizes such as California and Paul’s native Texas ahead. Romney hadn’t yet sewn up the 1,144 delegates needed for the nomination, and the campaign’s longstanding goal of a brokered convention remained within the realm of technical possibility.

Then, in mid-May, Ron Paul issued a press release saying he wouldn’t be competing actively in California and Texas, using past-tense language such as congratulating his supporters for having “fought hard.” The media’s understandable conclusion: Paul had dropped out.

Except he hadn’t. The next day political director Jesse Benton scrambled to reframe the announcement, explaining that while the campaign was abandoning efforts to rack up primary votes in the big, expensive states, the effort to win delegates at state conventions would continue. Benton stressed the campaign’s desire to maintain a good relationship with the GOP, explaining that he wanted “respect and decorum” rather than more convention scrums.

The announcement hit Paul’s volunteer army hard. For some, it was evidence that the professional higher-ups surrounding the candidate—especially Benton, the grassroots’ bête noire—had lost intentionally. Theories ranged from the mundane (perhaps Paul was angling for a speaking slot at the convention) to the practical (the campaign was smoothing the path for the blander, more mainstream Rand Paul in 2016) to the paranoid (operatives were trying to kneecap the liberty movement entirely). This was a conspiracy theory I heard not only from anonymous firebrands at websites such as Ron Paul Forums, but from Oklahoma alternate delegate Porter Davis at the RNC. “For such a bunch of smart guys, they must have thrown the game to squander so many resources for such a pitiful result,” Davis said. 

Activists noted that the announcement came directly after a weekend of particularly chaotic GOP state conventions. Paul fans had clashed with Romney folk in Arizona, and in Oklahoma, the Paulites split to run their own rump convention.

In an October 2012 interview, Paul explained to me that while he knew it would discourage many of his grassroots fans, he just felt obliged to be honest with supporters about his chances. “It was my preference to do it…because I felt like if I didn’t do it, it was more deception. You have your very hard workers who are realistic and know what to expect,” he said. “And others have the expectation that tomorrow everyone in the world will know I’m going to be president of the United States. I thought it was time to be more honest and upfront rather than leading people astray.”

Trouble in Tampa

The decision to de-emphasize campaigning without suspending the campaign would shape the conflict between higher-ups and the volunteers through the national convention in Tampa. Paul and his professionals understood by mid-May that he could not win, but a large percentage of Paul delegates believed up until the convention was in full swing that they could somehow get the assembly en masse to defect from Romney to Paul, and at any rate should be as big a nuisance as possible to a rotten GOP establishment. The political professionals wanted to normalize, build donor lists, infiltrate the Republican Party rather than fight it, even if that required compromise and backroom deals. They were looking to formally train activists and cultivate other, less purely libertarian political candidates. The Paul campaign may have been the most energized in the Republican field by far, but by its endgame, those running it opted to rein in that energy. 

Grassroots activists (and some slightly disgruntled official campaign workers) brought a series of complaints about how the campaign was run. The ground operations relied too much on calls, not enough on door-to-door or advertising. The campaign rewarded coziness with superiors more than results. Some high-level operatives were not fully dedicated to Paul’s libertarian message. The campaign downplayed Paul’s foreign policy rather than trying hard to sell it to a doubtful GOP base. They didn’t fight hard enough in certain supposedly winnable states, such as Virginia, where Paul and Romney were the only ones on the ballot, or Texas, his home state. For his part, campaign manager John Tate notes that if he’d had endless millions, then he could have tried every strategy that the Monday morning quarterbacks are sure would have worked. As it is, Tate says, he’s proud of the movement-building the campaign produced.

Paul headed into the RNC with many more delegates than the media guessed, because his caucus strategy indeed helped him perform well above what the beauty contest votes would have predicted. The New York Times website was still claiming Paul had only one delegate from Iowa even after the whole state convention process was over. Romney partisans, meanwhile, were determined to trim Paul’s national numbers down to a headline-avoiding level, and to keep the number of state delegations he controlled below the five that would allow him to be officially nominated from the floor, thereby earning speaking time. The chaos and disruption at various state GOP conventions in the months before led to a series of credential challenges over which delegates would be officially recognized at the RNC.

The Paul campaign got involved in four of the delegation challenges, going after what they considered illegitimate strikings of duly elected delegates or alternates in Massachusetts, Oregon, and Louisiana, and defending the Paul-controlled Maine delegation from an establishment challenge. Dave Warrington, the campaign’s legal point man on the challenges, told an audience at a Campaign for Liberty–sponsored Liberty Political Action Conference in September that the GOP’s disregard for its own rules was so extreme that “I had members of the RNC who were by no means Paul supporters come up to me and say ‘this stinks, it turns my stomach, I can’t be involved in this.’ ”

The Paul people, who had spent so much time and energy mastering arcane parliamentary rules, were consistently stymied by the establishment that wrote them. The Oregon challenge lost entirely; in both Louisiana and Massachusetts the campaign made deals that got some but not all of its delegates reinstated. Bay State delegates had been ordered to sign loyalty oaths swearing they’d vote for Romney. Some refused, and even some who reluctantly signed were still bounced on suspicion of loyalty to Paul.

Still other Paulite challenges went rogue, without backing from the campaign. In Oklahoma, Paul state campaign director Al Gerhart was driven out of the state by a concerted grassroots revolt. As a result, Paul activists were on their own trying to get the results of their rump convention recognized by the RNC, and they failed. In California, a Paul-supporting lawyer named Richard Gilbert filed a confusing federal lawsuit in June accusing the GOP of a series of shenanigans and fraud aimed at Paul delegates. The suit also tried to establish that it was illegal for the RNC to “bind” any delegate to any candidate, which if true would theoretically create the possibility for a brokered convention in which Paul could win; the suit got tossed out in August by a U.S. District Court in California.

Maine became the final battleground, and the Paul forces’ most dramatic loss. Ultimately the RNC Committee on Contests divided the delegation in half days before the convention began: 10 for Paul and 10 for Romney. Maine Gov. Paul LePage was so angered by the violation of state process that he skipped the convention, even though he was not a Paul man himself. Paul’s Maine delegates walked off the floor dramatically when an attempt to get the body of the convention to vote on their reinstatement was ignored by the chair.

The Republican leadership further infuriated Paulites, Tea Party activists, and other grassroots organizers with a series of last-minute rules changes that will give future candidates the power to boot delegates they don’t like if they won the state, and will give the RNC board the power to unilaterally change rules between conventions.

Chris Stearns worked for the Paul campaign in Virginia and was a delegate from that state, where Paulites have not quite taken over but have formed an influential coalition with activists of a roughly Tea Party ilk and taken dozens of positions on the state GOP’s Central Committee. Stearns was on the platform committee, where Paul people did see some victories, most notably a call for a Federal Reserve audit, a gold commission, a ban on domestic drones in law enforcement, and more Internet freedom. (The committee failed, he grouses, to include an attack on the National Defense Authorization Act or a defense of raw milk.)

Despite the small platform successes, the rules changes and rough handling by establishmentarians (including delegates being threatened with ejection for waving Paul signs on the floor) left many of the 185 Paul delegates at the RNC alienated and disheartened. Some decided then and there to leave the GOP—Virginia delegate Stearns recalls that some fellow delegates said “screw it, [the GOP] is a corrupt organization and there’s nothing we can do about it.” But most, says campaign manager John Tate, “came out more committed than ever to going back and throwing the bums out.” As Stearns says, “If we leave ’cause they want us to leave, we are falling into their trap. Most of us decided, let’s just continue to do what we’ve been doing. I think in the long term, [the party establishment] is going to feel a dose of blowback.”

Even non-Paulites such as former Republican National Committee head Michael Steele criticized the Romney leadership for being too heavy-handed. Steele told The Daily Show in August that “what the Republican National Committee did to Ron Paul was the height of rudeness and stupidity for this reason: Why would you alienate an individual who has the ability to attract a new generation of voters who are already skeptical of your institution but are willing to at least listen through the vehicle of this individual?” he asked. “Why would you alienate them, get on the floor and not let them speak?” 

“They could have had fair up and down votes” on the rules and credentials issues, Tate points out. “And we would have lost those votes.” Doug Wead, a Paul adviser and longtime Republican operative who worked with Ronald Reagan and both Bushes, said he hadn’t seen such shoddy treatment of a party faction “since ’88, when the evangelical Christians started to take over the party. It’s ironic because the people making claims about how dangerous the Paul people are for the party are often the same evangelical Christians.” 

In the absence of a Paul endorsement, the Romney campaign didn’t want Paul to speak, which meant they didn’t want him officially placed in nomination for the presidency. When six delegations submitted petitions to nominate Paul for president—the existing rule said he needed only five—the RNC secretary Kim Reynolds just did nothing with them, says Wayne Terhune, chair of the Nevada delegation, who handed them to her. Then the rule was changed: Henceforth renegade candidates will need eight states before a nomination request is considered. The official Paul campaign saw the nomination fight as one last gasp of its grassroots acting out, and offered no formal support.

Terhune was censured by his state party for announcing, during the roll call, 17 votes for Paul out of the state’s 27, although more than that number were supposed to be bound to Romney. Terhune says he “canvassed his people and reported the votes they told me accurately.” No matter how many votes for Paul that state delegation leaders announced from the floor, the RNC secretary never recognized them and the numbers she would shout back for the TV cameras never included Paul’s votes.

Paul himself left Tampa before the convention was even over. “I never liked conventions. I was only there to be supportive of the people willing to do it,” he says. “People said I stormed out, left town—that was not true. I was trying to get out of town quietly.” 

Paul eventually came in a distant but not disgraceful second place at the RNC, with 185 delegate votes from the floor. That’s nearly 17 percent of what it would have taken to win. Paul was fourth in the primary/caucus-season popular vote, behind Santorum and Gingrich. Yet he bested them, as he said he would, by racking up delegates.

The Future of Ron Paul

In August, Ron Paul told Bloomberg News that the GOP is “not my party” since it doesn’t embrace liberty and peace. He endorsed no one for president, although he told a Fox News reporter that he thought Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson was “wonderful.” In October, Paul told me he was leaning toward the “none of the above” option.

A few weeks after Tampa, the Campaign for Liberty held a three-day Liberty Political Action Conference full of hundreds of academics and politicos, activist trainers and radio hosts, to demonstrate that the movement was still thriving regardless of Ron Paul’s imminent retirement from politics. Paul himself appeared, no different in style, substance, or energy than when he was running for office. He just didn’t have to end his talks by asking anyone to vote for him.

An unscientific poll at that September gathering suggested that Paul voters would be split in thirds between Romney, Gary Johnson, and a return to the nonvoting status from which so many Paul fans emerged. The political pros among them were more likely to back Romney, though almost never enthusiastically, and to predict that other Paul fans would do likewise. 

No pollsters rigorously investigated where the 2.1 million Ron Paul primary votes went in November. Some Paul fans tried to torture the numbers to prove that alienating the rEVOLution cost Romney the election, using wildly varying and unlikely assumptions of voter behavior. But those 2.1 million (let alone Gary Johnson’s 1.2 million) fall short of the 4 million gap between Obama and Romney. The professionals in the Paul political machine seem reluctant even to suggest they had an influence on Romney’s defeat. Paul himself knows there is no way of knowing; even before the election he said that no matter what happened, “the status quo would win.”

Still, the 2012 election had some upsides for the liberty movement. Three Paul-endorsed freshmen will be entering the House of Representatives this year—Kentucky’s Thomas Massie, Florida’s Ted Yoho, and Michigan’s Kerry Bentivolio—along with one sort-of freshman who held a seat for a term in the mid-’90s, Texas’s Steve Stockman. One of Paul’s six Senate endorsements, Texan Ted Cruz, also won. And Justin Amash, most Paul fans’ favorite politician not named Paul, won re-election to his Michigan House seat after redistricting. Gary Johnson became the first LP presidential candidate to finish in third place since a guy named Ron Paul did so, 24 years earlier. 

Ron’s son Rand, the first-term senator from Kentucky, is clearly angling to follow in his father’s footsteps, and he is widely expected to run for president in 2016. But on some substance and most style he’s going about it in an altogether different manner.

Rand, who was given a prime speaking slot at the Republican National Convention, does not go out of his way to offend the sensibilities of a modal GOP voter. He
can sound jingoistic about his reasons for opposing foreign aid in one breath, then acknowledge the reality of foreign policy blowback in the next. He adds to an Iran sanctions bill a measure stating that it does not grant explicit war powers, then votes for the sanctions. He endorsed Romney in June (drawing widespread criticism from fans of his father), then slammed the GOP frontrunner for believing that the president can unilaterally declare war. He makes his opposition to abortion as loud and prominent as his opposition to deficit spending. “Rand needs to be able to bring about what [Michele] Bachmann tried to do,” says Wead. “Unite the evangelical and libertarian wings of the party.” 

In the absence of any politician on the scene as uncompromising as Ron Paul, some of his fans think it’s time to give up on electoral politics for now. “No more Ted Cruzes, Jim DeMints, or Mike Lees,” says Austrian economics popularizer Tom Woods, dismissing the fiscally conservative senators from Texas, South Carolina, and Utah. “There’s a wing of the movement badgering us into thinking that’s the best we can get and we should be darn happy, but I’m not happy because war is the most important issue and those people are all terrible on that. I don’t want to wade into national politics with a milquetoast substitute for Ron. If we don’t have a really good guy, sit it out.” 

But other Paulites sound like they are in electoral politics for the long game. Marianne Stebbins ran the very successful Minnesota operation for Paul, which nabbed 80 percent of the state delegation. She told a crowd of nearly 10,000 at a Paul rally held in Tampa the day before the RNC that “we were successful because we came together five years ago, networked, organized, began sharing the message of liberty with neighbors and co-workers.…We were setting up ham radio clubs. We were buying and splitting sides of steer and bison. Drinking raw milk off our friends’ farms. We were helping each other with our businesses.…We trade with each other. We work to be physically and mentally fit so that we are self-sufficient. We self-employ. Maybe we homeschool, but we teach our children to be self-sufficient and to live free.”

For people like Stebbins, though still into electoral politics, the politics part seems almost an afterthought. It is this strand of the rEVOLution’s DNA that promises to impact American culture and lives above and beyond any single campaign for office.

Paul himself is cagey about his specific activities in 2013 and beyond. He reclaimed his title as honorary chairman of the Campaign for Liberty, and activists from Young Americans for Liberty are confident he’ll hit the campus speaking trail again. “The movement for liberty would be a failure if it was linked to one party,” Paul says. “A true revolution has to be pervasive and infiltrate everyone.”

So Ron Paul ran for president and won. Not the presidency, but over two million highly energetic people who—when given the chance—voted for peace, freedom, and sound money. The results of the general election seemed to indicate that a GOP without its Paul faction is at best a losing party. His faction is not going away, and with Romney’s drubbing and a country that doesn’t seem as if it is going to escape its fiscal tailspin any time soon, they bid fair to be even more influential in 2016. That isn’t the same as leading the free world, but it’s more than Paul bargained for when he first entered into politics.