Why Ron Lost
A week with the freedom movement in New Hampshire comes to a bitter end
MANCHESTER, NH - I have seen more goddamn tears than I need to in a 48-hour period. On Monday I watched, again and again and again via the magic of cable news, Hillary Clinton choke up at the audacity of Barack Obama trying to take her nomination. On Tuesday night I saw Ron Paul voters and volunteers, men and women, pinching their eyelids and daubing their tears in both joy and crushing disappointment. As torture devices go, the New Hampshire primary is better than the iron maiden. But not by much.
It was a good night for last night's Democratic and Republican winners, and for the politics of emotional manipulation. (Next time this state holds a primary, perhaps we can offer the "he served in Vietnam" McCain voters and "she cried like a carbon-based life form" Clinton voters on a cruise together.) It was a weird and bad night for Barack Obama, but one he can recover from — those black voters in South Carolina aren't going to double back to Clinton after one narrow loss in a white state. It was a lousy night for Mitt Romney, and a terrible night for Ron Paul. The theory that Paul could perform well in New Hampshire has been shredded, as has the theory that an amorphous Ron Paul vote was not being counted by polls, and it's not clear where he or the "freedom movement" will go from here. And that's not all bad.
But first, the bad parts. It had become an article of faith that Paul would make his best early showing in the Granite State. It once had the country's largest number of elected Libertarian legislators. It has resisted smoking bans, income taxes, sales taxes, and Real ID. Its motto, "Live Free or Die," sounds like a Paul slogan. Pollster John Zogby predicted Paul could get up to 17 percent of the vote here, and though Zogby's final poll on the Democratic race was a stunning 15 points off, he has a generally good record on this stuff. As the McCain-Romney race was tightening it became clear that a showing of 14 or 15 percent could assure a headline-grabbing third-place finish. Campaign manager Lew Moore said last night that that's where he was hoping to place.
He fell short, and heartbreakingly so. The consolation prize for Paul supporters was supposed to be his narrow defeat of Rudy Giuliani, who'd fallen sharply in the state after the McCain surge and the failure of his goofy commercials (Giuliani refuses to read a script, so aides interview him on camera and cut his responses into commercials, and the results sound like the methed-up ramblings of an Italian Jackie Mason impersonator). Supporters cheered at first as Paul stayed 100 or 200 votes behind Giuliani -- it seemed possible for him to surge when early results from the Vermont border and depopulated northern counties started coming in.
Yet Paul stayed stubbornly in fifth place, and supporters booed CNN as the network cut him out of its top-four-candidate pie charts. Some cried censorship, others cried vote-rigging. While I talked to Lew Moore, some Paulites who recognized the man shouted questions about precincts that showed zero votes for Paul ("I personally know three people who voted for him there!") and electronic voting machines. "This thing with Hillary and Obama just shows that you can't trust the vote," I overheard a twentysomething volunteer say to his gal-pal.
Actually, you can trust it. Paul simply underperformed. The problems were threefold: a late start in actual campaigning, a strange ad campaign, and a waste of energy among novice volunteers who should have been getting out the vote.
The late start was the most obvious (and reassuring) reason for the disappointing finish. It had been widely known, for months, that New Hampshire could become Paul country. But not until December did Paul volunteers really start to flood the state and do the dullest grunt work of politics: phonebanking, door-to-door canvassing. Some of the work had been done earlier, but there wasn't the kind of critical mass that can rack up votes until the arrival of Vijay Boyapati's Operation Live Free or Die, a third-party effort to bring in Paul volunteers and put them up in houses so they could learn the art of the campaign. Most came too late to prune down the voter lists the campaign had and create a truly effective, Bush 2004-style turnout list that could have maxed out the totals on election day. There is no such thing as a perfect list – indeed, the Obama campaign probably turned out female voters who'd been committed on Monday and Judas'd him on Tuesday. But I found plenty of grumbling about how tepidly the Paul forces were organized before the grassroots arrived.
I found even more grumbling about the ad campaign. Paul spent more than $1.5 million on TV and radio ads in this state, and from the get-go, Paul supporters responded to them with an ire unseen in any other campaign. Obviously, the Pauloverse has always been more communicative than the base of any other campaign: There are no RudyGiulianiForums, there are no multi-thousand-post YouTube threads for Fred Thompson's country-fried web videos. Get that many online fans and you'll get some nasty feedback.
In this case, though, the feedback was right. Paul's numbers spiked after he ran a simple ad slamming the government for invading Americans' privacy, but then the campaign moved on to media that stressed his army record, his pro-life views, and especially his yen for closing the border. The ads got slicker and slicker, and the numbers didn't move. The slickest ad, a Tancredoean cry against birthright citizenship and visas for terrorists, was a total flop. The 50 percent of Republicans who told exit pollsters they want to deport illegal aliens voted for Romney, McCain, Huckabee, and Rudy, in that order. A volunteer who went by the name of Ball griped that the ads made Paul look like a generic Republican, not a solution-spouting maverick libertarian. The evidence supports him.
The third factor – the work of the volunteer rEVOLutionaries – is the hardest to gauge. Paul volunteers and signs were eye-poppingly visible across the state, and the week of the primary they turned downtown Manchester into their own bottle city of Kandor. Painted Ron Paul vans drove up and down the Elm Street drag as Tom Sheehan, the Ron Paul Patriot, donned revolutionary war clothes and a backpack that supported as many as four giant-sized Paul signs. Paul people crashed other candidates' publicity stunts and waved signs on corners. When Fox News expelled Paul from the final pre-primary debate, 36 hours before the polls opened, more than 200 Paul fans flooded the city to protest and march and disrupt Fox's programming. Could they have spent that time scrounging up enough votes to beat Giuliani and win some headlines?
Maybe that's not a fair question. The Paul people figured out a while ago that their candidate is hated by most of the GOP and ridiculed by the media. Some of the loudest cheers in Paul's concession speech came not when he hit his applause lines but when CNN cut live to the room, and the crowd's eyes could turn to a big screen of their own celebration. There, for about a minute, Anderson Cooper had to watch as a 10-term congressman discussed the folly of paper money.
I think supporters are right to say that free media is doing more to spread Paul's message than a stack of lawn signs or TV ads. But I also think many of the Paul people underrated how credulous the media was about Paul's New Hampshire chances. I was asked by fellow journalists at candidate events, repeatedly, how I thought Paul would do and whether he could clip Huckabee and Giuliani. Burned once during his greatest opportunity, reporters now might stop bothering with him. And on the day of the primary, The New Republic released a thorough spelunking of Paul's old newsletters containing statements that would destroy a frontrunner politician. "It's this same story that comes up every month or so," said D.C. Paulite Bradley Jansen, "but this stuff comes up when you google 'Ron Paul.'"
The tears ended not long into Paul's speech; the last ones I saw came from one of the older volunteers I met, an exuberant man who yelled "No!" when Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) told a room of 1,000 other Republicans to vote for John McCain. When Paul smiled and said the message of the Federal Reserve overprinting currency was finally getting out, I saw the one-time heckler on the verge of a full-on blubbering.
Throughout the evening, I heard a common theme: that the freedom movement has to be bigger than one congressman with a past that keeps climbing up out of the mud to drag him down. Days before the votes came in I hung around outside Murphy's Taproom, the de facto Ron Paul bar in Manchester, and heard college kids and just-out-of college types excitedly talking about what would happen when… Paul didn't win. "Dr. Paul wouldn't want us to give up if we lose this election," said Drew Rushford, excitedly talking with two other out-of-state supporters. "If we give up, then we never supported him at all." So Lew Moore was right -- The Paul party was as exuberant as most victory parties. We just don't know yet what they're celebrating, and neither do they.
David Weigel is an associate editor of reason.