NEW HAMPSHIRE—The first New Hampshire ad Ron Paul purchased with his giga-hauls was dubbed "Catching On." Dr. No's donors greeted it like a new strain of some flesh-boiling virus. High up among the ad's problems, they argued, was the oddness of the featured actors—all of them amateurs, almost all of the male actors sporting beards. "If Ron Paul doesn't get the nomination," wrote the sage Jongo2124 on YouTube, "I'm single-handedly blaming that bearded atrocity."
I have seen the Paul campaign in action, and I can confirm that there are beards. Lots of them. Middle-aged electrician beards, gravitas-adding beards on thirtysomethings, thin hipper-than-thou beards on the youngest volunteers. Massachusetts grad student John Notley wears a massive, red Nordic mane that earns him the nickname Thor. It's reminiscent of a semi-famous photo from the 1972 presidential race, of a waddling businessman handing out Nixon literature right next to a skinny hippie handing out McGovern fliers. The difference is that the nameless McGovern flunky was campaigning for acid, amnesty, and abortion, while Paul's crew wants to bring back the paleoconservative sobriety of Sen. Robert Taft.
They're a happy bunch of people, which comes as no surprise. For the first time in their lives, libertarians and men (and women) of the Old Right are bunking together, partying together, and knocking on suburban doors to talk war, abortion, and monetary policy. And people are actually talking back to them.
"We've talked to people that no one else knows to talk to," said a volunteer from Portland, Oregon who goes by the handle Ball. Vanishingly thin, tucking a Murray Rothbard T-shirt into snow pants and adjusting sci-fi eyeglasses, he marvels that no other campaign has tried to steal Paul's thunder. Any Republican campaign (or Democratic campaign, for that matter) could have talked to blue collar voters about why their dollar was collapsing or why we went to war in Iraq, but they didn't, and Ball's finding voters who were waiting to hear about those issues. He reflected on the towns he's canvassed. "Dover is Ron Paul mania," Ball said. "Blue collar people who want to know why the dollar is going down. Derry sucked. All country club Republicans and limousine liberals. Upper crust who don't understand or care about this."
The canvassers have all kinds of theories about what's working and what isn't. They agree that Manchester is tough, that towns with lots of wealthy Republicans are hard going, but the further you drive north, the more Paul support you see. Organizers for Operation Live Free or Die, the grassroots group that's putting hundreds of Paul volunteers in hotels—and 14 houses—across the state, talk about Paul "owning" towns closer to Canada. Aaron Jones, an Indiana musician who pounded the pavement in tiny Franklin, hit one neighborhood with 30 homes and got nine requests for lawn signs.
Rival campaigns don't know how many people are backing Paul. The Paul campaign won't even say how many people they think they can turn out, whether they think they can win, or whether they'd take a bronze medal and call it a win. "We're running hard, everywhere," says Jared Chicoine, the New Hampshire director for the campaign. He kept the campaign's targets close to his vest. "Our voters are conservatives, Republicans, and Independents who want low taxes, who don't like big government intruding in their lives."
In some ways Chicoine sounds like a typical Paulista. "I honestly didn't plan on doing a presidential race this year," Chicoine said. (He's been working on races in the state since 2000.) "My friends were signing up with Thompson, or with McCain, and I was unconcerned. Then Ron Paul got in. I'd been following him for years, since the 1990s, and I never thought he was about to run for president—I had to go and do this."
But in his strategy and his priorities for the campaign, Chicoine illustrates the gap between Ron Paul staff and Ron Paul volunteers. Apart from the debates and select rallies, when Paul has unabashedly talked about the war on drugs, foreign policy blowback, and monetary policy, the candidate and the campaign have focused more on the issues that motivate conventional Republican voters than the ones that speak to libertarian stalwarts. Much of the direct mail that the campaign is blasting across the state could have been designed by pander-happy Mitt Romney or hard-right Duncan Hunter. Simple green fliers, designed for drop-offs at churches, contain the text of Paul's eulogy for Pope John Paul II. One mailer boasts of Paul's donations from military members and features a photo of a massive gunship and the promise that Paul will "Defend America by Defending Our Borders." An optimistic mailer with pro-life overtones fronts an adorable baby smiling above the legend, "Millions like me are counting on you." On a more explicit pro-life flier, the baby is giving a thumb's up.
Some of the volunteers agree with those messages, but just as many wish the campaign would get off them. Anthony Reed, a 20-year old volunteer from Texas, complains that the anti-immigration ad now plastered across the New Hampshire airwaves alienated a friend. Now she supports Obama. There's grumbling in the office about independent voters (the minority of them who pick up their phones or answer their doors) voicing support for Paul but saying they'll vote for Obama or McCain because they want "change." How does a cash-flush insurgent campaign like Paul's win those voters? Try and get the campaigners to agree.
"Maybe I just haven't been on this earth long enough, but I think they should just run videos of Ron himself," Ball told me in the kitchen of an Operation Live Free or Die house. "That first video of him explaining why he got into the race was the best thing he's done." He shook his head. "I don't like these ads with a generic narrator talking about the border invasion, like Paul is just another Mitt Romney."
I mentioned this exchange to some Paul canvassers. "You can't compete with Mitt Romney on the ads," one of them said. "No way. He looks like a car salesman."
"Be fair," said canvasser and Free State Project organizer Jon Maltz. "He looks like a used luxury car salesman."
You hear enough of the bellyaching about the Paul campaign's strategy and you wonder if it's just that: bellyaching. What volunteer is ever going to be 100 percent satisfied with the campaign giving him orders? What the Paul campaign is doing looks like micro-targeting, the tactic campaigns use to find disgruntled, disconnected voters and connect with them on the specific issues they care about. Non-voters who go to Mass might like those pro-life fliers, for example. Maybe they'd crumple up a mailer about the drug war and recycle it with their magazines. But the volunteers' critique sounds more solid when they worry about the campaign's logistics.
"Our call lists are pretty flawed," one Paul canvasser said. "There are these names of people who moved out of state or are absolutely committed to another candidate. There are people who tell you they don't vote, but the list says they voted in 2000 and 2004."
That particular canvasser wasn't brought down by that experience. He folded it into his theory of the race: "If these are the lists everyone is using then maybe the pollsters who are calling them are missing our voters."
Of course, pollsters don't use the same lists campaigns use. In Paul's case, it's a list of Independents and Republicans cobbled from lists the campaign purchased and winnowed down by canvassing. It's the sort of organizational problem that could make Tuesday harder than expected. Operation Live Free or Die has done some of its own canvassing, reminiscent of the third-party groups like America Coming Together that couldn't coordinate with John Kerry's 2004 campaign and underperformed the well-oiled Bush-Cheney campaign. So it is with grassroots campaigning in an era of strict campaign finance reform. ("The only thing I like about campaign finance reform is that it's saved me from giving even more money to Ron Paul," volunteer Ofer Nave told me.)
New Hampshire's primary politics could change dramatically after the Iowa caucuses. Fred Thompson might drop out of the race, Mitt Romney could steal momentum back from John McCain, Obama could fade and free up independent voters who had planned to back him. And that Republican race, moribund for months until John McCain started perking up, is going to be less attended to than the Democratic race. The number of volunteers working for Paul could match the talent, if not the numbers working for the frontrunners. They will probably exceed the numbers working for Giuliani and Thompson, who are doing poorly in pre-primary polls. After the Iowa Caucus results proved that Paul does appeal to independent voters, and that his poll numbers don't fade on election days, we'll see what's going to work in New Hampshire.
David Weigel is an associate editor of reason.