Ron Paul came in second with 23 percent, roundly outperforming all polls leading up. This is not just living up to expectations. This is exceeding them. This is, as his campaign announced, very good reason for everyone not Paul and Romney to give this campaign up. Those two define a division in style and substance that will shape the Republican Party this year, and in the future. Paul's anti-interventionist, scrappy, radical libertarianism smashed Gingrich's 90s think tank conservatism, Santorum's outmoded social conservatism (which Paul nearly matched in Iowa as well) and Jon Huntsman's smarty-pants mealy-mouthed mainstream moderate Republicanism (even with its "I don't seem like a total jerk or fool" veneer).

Paul, being Paul, took this moment of great attention to give a tight and passionate version of his usual stump speech, as boredom and confusion flitted over the faces of many of the line of professional national media in the back. Paul talked of the unity of liberty, of intellectual revolution, of unstoppable momentum, and of course of the importance of monetary policy. Big political rah-rah cheer lines would segue in a second to Paul schooling us on the Fed, an amusing hush falling over the room: Professor Paul is getting down to business.

The vibe in the room where Paul gave his speech and many, many hundreds of his campaign volunteers celebrated for many hours after the candidate left the building was pure exhausted, proud joy, combined with resolution for the necessary next steps. These folk are both earnest and joyful, serious and witty, pleased and proud but by no means ready to rest on laurels. They all did their days or weeks of months of door-knocking, phone calling, poll watching, sign waving, and often very dedicated one on one discussion about how and why liberty was the right thing for America, to every New Hampshirite who would listen.

My night ended with a hundred of so of the die-hards crowding into the background shots for big TV standups. They were chanting: "Ron Paul Revolution! Give Us Back Our Constitution!" and "President Paul!" (Someone suggested tossing in a "Free Nelson Mandela" or "Fur is Murder.") Vermin Supreme, the boot-on-his-head joke Democratic candidate who was stopped a dozen or more times for photo ops by Paul volunteers, alas, was escorted out of the shot by a Paul campaign worker.

The campaign tries to be a little too button-down at times; in fact, they seem to actively not want the rather filled-with-glory story of how their supporters pull off political near-miracles like here and Iowa to be told thoroughly and on record, trying to hold nearly everyone to "don't talk to strangers journalists" expectations. (It's as if they think it will toss victory to their opponents to expose the secrets of lots of enthusiastic fans, a great message, voter identification, poll watching, and phone calls phone calls phone calls. In fact, it can just lead journalists to focus on the sort of random fans who actually don't always paint Paul supporters in the most voter-friendly light.)

The giddy spirit of the Paulistas will march on; every single one of the youth volunteers I spoke to, whether the ones put up by the campaign in hotels or sleeping on Free Staters floors, said they were quite confident they'd be moving on to work for Ron Paul's victory in South Carolina, in Nevada, in Maine, in Massachusetts, in New York, in Florida.

As I moved through the Paul fans' resolute and well-earned good cheer and joys and in-jokes of weary gangs who have been through the wringer together, I started thinking: how will the significance of what's going on here with the Paul movement continue to be misread or ignored?

I heard on local NPR on the way out from the party what I imagine is going to be the standard "this doesn't matter" spin on this: that Paul's success in trouncing all but the anointed frontrunner will be no more meaningful than was Pat Buchanan's actual win here in 1996, which sputtered out with four more states won. Paul is just the new leader of that weird, intractable pitchfork-wielding rabble that the respectable and proper, in media and politics, rightly ignore. (Fox isn't bothering with sophisticated historical analogies; they just keep saying, mostly, against all evidence: Naaah.)

I do not know the future; it is possible that this will be the high point of the Paul 2012 campaign.

But Paul has things Buchanan does not have; a coherent set of beliefs about domestic, fiscal, monetary and foreign policy that fit the crises the country now faces in a way that I've found, and his supporters confirm over and over, is pretty easy to sell and understand if listened to with sympathy. Paul has a set of ideas with a clear and widespread ability to inspire energetic and effective activism. To be a libertarian triumphalist for a moment: Ron Paul has a set of ideas that make sense and are correct, and fit the historical moment, in a way that Buchanan's largely backward looking culture war resentment did not. 

Am I going to be enough of a fool to utter the heresy that "Ron Paul can win"? Well, unless you are the sort of conspiracy theorist who believes that votes are not at least within reason honestly counted, anyone on the ballot can win. All it takes it enough people voting for you. But whether or not he wins, he and his supporters have after tonight created the faultline on which American politics could well split. It seems quite possible that within 10 years the form of politics that Romney represents will have to seek third party succor.

By any rational assessment, all the forces called "Tea Party" or "true conservative" should be able to fall in line behind Paul. This doesn't mean it will happen. But it is a perfectly reasonable expectation about what can happen from here. I've talked to enough undecided GOP voters this past year to be aware that rational assessments are not always or even often what drive them. Tribalism and the forces of apparent inevitability have much power. I'm not forgetting that Mitt Romney did win this election, and win it by a huge margin.

Still. I have held my expectations in check for five years about the political possibilities of the whole "Ron Paul for President" thing, and he and his fans have exceeded them every step of the way. I vaguely saw the shape of what 2012 could mean for the ideas of liberty as represented by Paul, as written about in my forthcoming book Ron Paul's Revolution, but never mustered enough hubris to predict its success with confidence. That confidence is beginning to seem justified about now. (Success, here, does not necessarily mean being the Republican candidate. But it does mean creating the solidified movement of ideas and passion that can grow to dominate American politics. That is, Romney is Rockefeller; Paul is Goldwater.) Paul's encouraging early results this year are the most significant political results for the cause of liberty I could have imagined, arriving faster than I could have imagined. I expect it to only get more interesting from here.

Paul's speech at the results-watching party tonight: