By the Time We Got to Ronstock

With the Paul campaign at the Iowa Republican Straw Poll


(This article has been corrected since publication: The names of two Paul supporters, Brian Costin and Jeremie Bellenir, were initially misspelled.)

AMES, IOWA – It has been said before and I will say it now: the Romneys are one good-looking family. The enormous stage they've rented for the Ames Straw Poll is large enough to fit the whole clan and a small cover band as Father Mitt delivers a gauzy speech about the joys of the Hawkeye State. After he wraps up, the Romneys sidle off the stage to take photos with eager young Republicans, sign T-Shirts, and respond to friendly questions with even friendlier answers. Then the video cameras pick up an awful din.

"Ron PAUL! Ron PAUL! Ron PAUL!"

Ten steps away a phalanx of people with Ron Paul signs and T-shirts are clattering and yelling, disrupting the Romney tableau. Like a gun's gone off, a gang of Romney kids in blue T-shirts sprint over to hoist their own signs and yell slogans, chasing the Paulites back to their tents. They're confronted by a counter-chant.

"We're NOT paid volunteers! We're NOT paid volunteers!"

Clumsy, but it stings a little. The Romney volunteers crumple like Abercrombie and Fitch models who've been told the photo shoots are cancelled. They fade away and the Paul fans laugh.

"Well, they know when to shut up."

Somebody asks where the 30-odd Paul people just came from.

"Inside the Romney camp," says the megaphone-toting Brian Costin.

"Into the belly of the beast," someone laughs.

Supporters of Ron Paul entered the grounds of Iowa State University with modest expectations. It costs $35 for a ticket that allows you to cast a vote, a clear advantage for this campaign, which happens to have the most money to spend. Everybody knows that Mitt Romney will win, although no one knows by how much. (There are rumors that he's spent $5 million, that he has a block of 20,000 tickets, that he's using the Philosopher's Stone to bring back Lord Voldemort.) But lots of the people in and around the Paul tent expect to pull a strong second, at least.

"There's a lot of anti-war sentiment in this state," said Wisconsinite Keith McBreyer, leaning back in a folding chair inside Paul's main tent. "The Paul campaign got going kind of late… you didn't see much organizing until May. I didn't, anyway. But if Paul can't win here he can't win anywhere else."

Paul's campaign staff, looking incongruous in slacks and ties and dropping buckets of sweat, admitted that they didn't game out the Straw Poll or do the voter-targeting and ticket-buying that the leading campaigns have. (The campaign told me in June that they weren't "trying to buy it like some people.") They spent rather modestly on their tents, booked a DJ and a band, and bought hot dogs and popcorn to compete with the pulled-pork barbeque, baked beans and pasta salad of the Romney and Brownback shindigs. At the last minute the campaign bought 800 voting tickets which slowly found takers as the day went on. "We didn't make that decision until around 10 days ago," a Paul campaign staffer said.

As a result, the Paul camp is a mish-mash of official efforts and grassroots activism that's often hard to tell apart. In the last week the Paul campaign launched a rough-edged TV ad that focused, more than the candidate has in the debates, on his social conservatism. And in the last 24 hours before the poll a group of Paul supporters bought a full-page ad in the Ames Tribune: dubbed the "Ron Paul Mosiac", it creates a portrait of the candidate from snapshots of hundreds of supporters. It looks slick, but it's about a movement, not a message. It doesn't mention abortion, for example. In his TV ad and in a 2 p.m. speech to the straw poll, Paul hones in on the "sanctity of life." His call for the repeal of Roe vs. Wade gets as much applause as his more familiar call to repeal the Sixteenth Amendment.

"I think that's part of the freedom message," Paul told me. "You always want to broaden the base, and in this area, in this state, you want to appeal to social conservatives without sacrificing any principles."

The tent wasn't exactly brimming with social conservatives. Most of the people who'd showed up and marched around the university grounds—more than three thousand, all told—are youngish, under 40, some old enough to have kids, and some still approaching their 20s. And as Garance Franke-Ruta found, yes, some of them were kooky. One volunteer trotted around in a Eddie Munster outfit—black shorts, white shirt, red bow tie—handing out pamphlets. Another arrived from voting and opened a laptop to blog at the neo-Nazi website Stormfront.org.

But this was, let's remember, a Republican straw poll, and kooks flowed through the fairgrounds like water. Walk a few paces and witness a strangely silent family of Aryans hand out Alan Keyes literature, walk a little further and listen to an Elvis impersonator rewrite some of the great man's gold records with new lyrics about California Rep. Duncan Hunter ("I dream of Duncan Hunter every night/Duncan Hunter's policies will make it right").

None of them mattered; none pissed in the collective punchbowl quite like the Paul crowd. Still flush from the Romneycrash, they plotted a 12:30 p.m. march around the grounds. Anticipation started to boil. A few minutes from the march a middle-aged drummer boy (George Tremblay) and a flautist (John Weins) dressed up in pirate duds climbed a hill near the Paul tent and started playing Revolutionary War songs. The crowd started to gather around them, then built when Brian Costin pied-pipered more fans out of the tent with his megaphone. As they clustered, Chris King, a 14-year-old black kid from Pittsburgh, pumped his fist and jumped to psych them up.

"Join the REVOLUTION MARCH!" King screamed. He then panted, and recovered some energy. "Join the REVOLUTION MARCH!"

The crowd that marched out of the tent looked like something Breughel would sketch after downing some absinthe, Costin's megaphone blasting chants as King hollered and the honor guard cycled through their war songs. Near the front a Nick Nolte lookalike named Fred Smart—a leader of VoteInSunshine, the group that challenged the Straw Poll's voting system—screamed himself purple. The march wound through the entire fairgrounds as lunch-munching Republicans gawked, obviously bemused. They smiled, and when they sighted a peace flag (an American flag with the stars replaced by a peace sign), they sneered.

"That's a weird flag," heckled a proud frat boy in a Team Romney shirt. "What country is that from? I don't think I know that country." He smirked and looked around for someone to high-five; seeing no one, he ambled away.

The march terminated at the entrance to the Hilton Coliseum where Mitt Romney's masses were starting to flow in for his speech. Here were the fruits of Romney's multi-million dollar Straw Poll campaign: Dozens of buses had brought in thousands of eldery voters, beer-bellied Korea vets and bird-like old ladies grabbing onto volunteers' biceps to keep their balance. Joined by healthy newlyweds and Norman Rockwell-painted Republican couples, they tried to duck the din of the Ron Paul Mosh. The Paul mobs sang and hooted and shook their signs and yelled out at the Romney voters.

"For your children!" one of them pleaded of a couple walking in with a baby carriage. "Think about your children! Your babies!"

The mosh moshed on for a half hour, diverting the traffic of Romney, Brownback and Tancredo golf carts, until the crowd was allowed into the Hilton auditorium. The chairs in front of the main stage were emptied out and refilled every time one speaker stopped and another prepped for his big event. The friendless Jon Cox gave his stemwinder to rows and rows of empty seats as the Paul mobs clamored outside. When they were let in, Tremblay and Weins led the way, blasting "Yankee Doodle Dandy," echoing like crazy—when the whole mob arrived they drowned out moderator Laura Ingraham.

"Do you want to hear the introduction?" she said. But she wasn't confrontational the way mainstream Republicans sometimes are with the Paul voters who work the phones into their radio shows. Ingraham plugged Paul's legislation to put a bounty on Osama bin Laden and let bounty hunters do the rest. "Who wants to take up Ron Paul's offer and hunt down Osama bin Laden?"

There's a weird sort of respect for the Paulites in some corners of the event. One brand of thinking was that Paul's support was all online vapor, strange mutants from the Internet who couldn't muster a crowd. But Paul's crowd is enormous.

"That's the only story so far," one reporter told me during the dull-ish candidate speeches. "The presence of the Ron Paul people."

And then he asked me: "Have you met any of them from Iowa?"

And that is the reason Paul's people were able to generate so much light and heat and yet enter the poll with such pessimism. Volunteer after volunteer was from outside Iowa. And only Iowans could cast a vote in the poll. Campaign staff estimated that only half of the people milling around their tent were eligible voters and that 1000 votes would be a decent haul. Not winning, but decent.

Some of the campaign's vote-card success was the work of grassroots supporters. As campaign staff handed out the 800 tickets they had purchased—some already reserved for voters, some picked up on the stop—Internet supporters like Jeremie Bellenir handed out their own tickets. Bellenir was part of the "Adopt an Iowan" plot launched on the web, where Paul fans earmarked thousands of bucks in donations to pay for Straw Poll votes. But in the late afternoon, with voting 80, 90 minutes away from closing, Bellenir still had tickets to give away. There hadn't been enough work done connecting the tickets with sure-thing voters.

At four o'clock some Paul volunteers came up with a solution, the doomed nature of which epitomized their problems. Rumors were swirling about a new fleet of buses arriving in the parking lot. Paul people were going to go and try to practice emergency baptisms as new voters shuttled in. The candidate himself would make a speech if the evangelists could bring them down to the tent.

It was a stillborn effort. The busses were actually there to pick up Romney's legions, fresh from voting, tuckered out, and ready to plan their next rounds of Florida condo-hunting. The Paul people mosied back, dejected, as the rest of the campaigns packed up their white tents, giant fans, and bouncy castles. Some of them walked around with signs and some of them stretched their scorched bodies in the shade.

Richard Green of U.S. Christians for Truth lounged in one chair chatting with Paul people on the way out of the parking lots. Earlier in the day he'd handed out a flier from his mystery-cloaked, possibly-phony group (no address, no phone number) savaging the "Mormon cult values" of Mitt Romney and warning Republicans not to vote for any candidate who'd had multiple marriages or an affair. Only if the party nominates a candidate who's remained faithful to his first wife (and doesn't wear "special" underwear) can they attack the Clintons from the high moral ground. Green voted for Paul.

"If Ron Paul is elected a lot of things will change in this country," he said. "But I hope [former Arkansas Gov. Mike] Huckabee doesn't get knocked out today. I would have voted for him if I thought he needed it."

He didn't need to worry, and in any case the Paul people have gotten over the bus debacle. They prepped for one last victory: dominating the Hilton main hall. Hummer-sized "Hope for America" signs were hauled into the room and pasted on the far walls. Brownback and Huckabee fans had already crowded the front of the room but the Paul crowds dwarfed them, eventually making up half of the space. There was no support for Romney or the Straw Poll-boycotting Giuliani and McCain: It all looked a bit like the victory platforms at the 1980 Olympics.

There was nothing left to plan, or to forget to plan: The Paul people were going to savor this. During a 90-minute delay in the vote count, thanks to those electronic machines the Vote in Sunshine crowd were angsting about, they started singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" and some of the other campaigns' boosters joined in. Then the votes came in. John McCain scored barely 100 votes and got Wicked-Witch-is-Dead belly laughs. There was a huge cheer when Giuliani placed eighth and a bigger cheer when Tommy Thompson chimed in sixth. Thompson had promised to quit the race if he bombed that badly, and now there'll be three or four more minutes of TV-debate time for Dr. Paul.

And in fifth place: Ron Paul. The Paul crowd went wild. They overlooked the smaller cheers for Tancredo's fourth place finish and the loud cheers—from a smaller crowd than theirs—when Mike Huckabee won second place. Precious little excitement was left for when Romney won it all and his gleaming Bryl-creamed visage materialized on the giant screams. He was expected to win this the moment Rudy dropped out. The story of the day was Huckabee.

Some of the Paul people were disappointed—none of them were crushed. The truly happy supporters were the Vote in Sunshine guys, who clustered in the middle of the room in front of the camera risers and excitedly chatted about the strategizing ahead. I pulled Fred Smart aside to ask him if he was disappointed in a fifth place showing. "I think you can see that Ron Paul has the momentum," he said. He left and the rest of his group returned to buzzing about drivers' licenses that didn't scan, riggable voting machines, and mysterious computer delays.

That was in front of the cameras risers. Right behind them, a few steps away, the beaming Mike Huckabee had arrived into a five-man deep reporter scrum. He smiled into an array of cameras, boom mics and tiny Olympus recorders. "For all intents and purposes, we won the Straw Poll," he said, credibly. Meanwhile the fraud-watchers, all of them Ron Paul voters, were bragging about how they'd stood out in the sun verifying votes.

There wasn't a better symbol of how the Paul campaign fell short in Ames. An anti-war Republican campaign was never going to win the straw poll outright. Measure the applause Paul got for saying "I stand for liberty, the Constitution, and peace" against what Tom Tancredo got for saying his foreign policy is "We win, you lose." One sounded like a big outdoor bar welcoming the J. Geils Band. The other sounded like U2 at Madison Square Garden.

Still, there were more than 1,300 Iowans who could potentially back Paul. This is a state with zero tradition of third-party voting (it gave 3,000 votes to Libertarian Party candidate Michael Badnarik in 2004). Eleven years ago the state would have given its caucus to Pat Buchanan if a few thousand Alan Keyes diehards had switched their votes to Pitchfork Pat.

The Paul Straw Poll efforts couldn't match any of that, resembling at times some of Howard Dean's botched gambits in the 2004 Iowa Caucus, when clueless undergraduate volunteers stood out in the cold and waved signs for an event for which people didn't even drive to polling places.

But Paul's campaign isn't comparable to that because, unlike Dean's, it's not positioned to win a nomination. There are people who sign up for "the Revolution" fully aware they aren't electing a president. Paul's shifting focus onto social issues or his stabs at real ground organizing don't matter to these voters. They're looking for a social network and a traveling carnival, and some chances to wave the middle finger at reporters or the rest of the Republican Party.

This is counterproductive, it's silly, and it's easily laughed off by the leading Republican campaigns. It's also the most fun these people have had in years. That was obvious on Saturday. And it was also obvious that unless the Paul campaign is headed for a few more headlines than a flameout, the shambolic synergy of the grassroots and the official campaign is going to have to coalesce into something serious.

That was crystal clear after the auditorium emptied out and the winning candidates spoke to the media. In front of his campaign bus and flanked by his wife and sons, Mitt Romney gloated about the victory he'd more or less bought, and photographers snapped pictures for Sunday's front pages. A few steps away you could see a sign that had been hoisted by various Paul people then taped to a lamppost in front of his busy tent: "Ron Paul: 1st Place Winner in Every Debate Poll." It was broken in half and sitting next to a trash can.

David Weigel is an associate editor of reason.