The most libertarian candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, began 2008 with an army of 100,000 enthusiastic donors. Before the primary season began, many of his fans clung to the hope that polls showing Paul stuck in single digits were cooked. Many, more pragmatically, hoped he'd play the kind of role Sen. Eugene McCarthy filled 40 years ago in the Democratic primaries, shaking his party out of its hawkish stupor and relocating its soul.
Neither of those scenarios unfolded. Nowhere was the disappointment greater than in the "Live Free or Die" state of New Hampshire, where the large independent vote and Paul's substantial war chest were primed to shock the political system. Before the election, pollsters such as John Zogby and Scott Rasmussen thought Paul might come in third place. ABC News embedded a reporter with the campaign just to see if lightning might strike, and CNN sent cameras to cover Paul's election night party live.
But Paul finished in a momentum-sapping fifth place, polling worse than he did in Iowa even after spending $3.6 million in the state. Only a second-place showing in Nevada relieved the doldrums of a bleak winter: 6 percent in Michigan, 4 percent in South Carolina, and 3 percent in the make-or-break state of Florida. When the winner-take-all states of Super Tuesday rolled around, Paul placed no better than a second- place showing in Montana and media interest in his movement faded away.
The chance of a Paul nomination, never likely to begin with, became mathematically impossible. Once that became clear, interest turned naturally to the members of Paul's decentralized, ad hoc movement—often dubbed the rEVOLution, after a slogan coined by Arizona libertarian Ernie Hancock. The big surprise is how many of his supporters want to scrap parts of Paul's campaign platform. The big question is how many of them will stick around for whatever comes next.
The divisions were already obvious before New Hampshire's crucial primary. Operation Live Free or Die, a grassroots Paul group founded by ex-Google whiz kid Vijay Boyapati, rented 14 friendly homes and opened them up to Paul volunteers to use as a base for door-to-door campaigning. In one house, a snowy 45-minute drive from the campaign headquarters in Concord, Paul workers from all over the country cooked food, drank beer, and talked about libertarian philosophy and economics.
Six nights before the New Hampshire primary, they were flipping across the TV looking for a Paul interview on CNN and found C-SPAN airing, as a public service, Paul's most ubiquitous ad: "Ron Paul wants border security now. Physically secure the border. No amnesty. No welfare to illegal aliens. End birthright citizenship. No more student Visas for terrorist nations."
I looked over at Anthony Reed, a 20-year-old Paul supporter from Fort Worth, Texas. "That ad," he said, grimacing. "That looks like something Romney would run." "Ball," a pseudonymous volunteer wearing snow pants and a Murray Rothbard T-shirt, complained that campaign ads and literature handed out to would-be voters were too contrived—disguising Paul as a mainstream Republican, instead of letting his FEE flag fly—and that the better strategy would have been to simply let the voters see and read Paul's words. "Just let him talk," Ball said.
When Paul did talk, he focused on the idea of radically limiting government—a message nowhere else to be found on either side of the aisle during this campaign. No other candidate was even questioning the wisdom of the Federal Reserve or the Department of Homeland Security; Paul vowed to abolish both. No other contender ran a commercial blasting the idea of a national ID card. Not coincidentally, nobody else was generating more than $6 million via single-day online "money bombs."
But after a spike in fund raising and polling, Paul pivoted to the more crowded anti-immigration field, with mailers showing a work boot stomping on the Constitution and the legend: "Illegal immigrants flaunt [sic] our laws."
This lunge for the Minuteman vote didn't work. According to exit polls, Paul won only 8 percent of Republican voters who want to deport all illegal immigrants. That was 16 points less than immigration compromiser John McCain, six less than amnesty waffler Mike Huckabee, and even one point less than "sanctuary city" mayor Rudy Giuliani. Paul finished a poor fifth among voters who cared about immigration but came in a strong second place among voters angry at the Bush administration. In other words, he came in second among his natural constituency and fared poorly on an issue every candidate was already scrapping over.
Would Paul have won more votes in New Hampshire, vaulting him to a better position in subsequent states, with a more foreign policy–based libertarian message? Consider that he finished second overall among voters who did not consider terrorism a big problem—19 percent compared to McCain's 39 percent. Voters who prized their personal liberty more than they feared the threat of a suitcase nuke in Nashua liked what Paul had to say. But the campaign simply wasn't confident that there were enough of these people to make a real stand. "Our voters are conservative Republicans," Jared Chicoine, Paul's state coordinator, said a few days before the primary.
The activists who devoted untold hours of their lives to the rEVOLution were decidedly not a pack of conservative Republicans. They ranged from anti-war radicals to the sort of people who staged impromptu rallies outside Federal Reserve buildings. New Hampshire helped clarify, for many of them, that their campaign was more about spreading the "freedom message" than scoring votes. With first place no longer in sight, the Paul campaign needed to be about something other than winning.
"His whole thing is not to become president," Paul volunteer Drew Rushford said in New Hampshire. "It's to start change. If we start change, he'll be just as happy."
Can the Paulites make lasting change? Eve Fairbanks of The New Republic described Paul's supporters as "the closest thing this race has to the Deaniacs of '04." Those Web-savvy, young, and excitable supporters of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean may not have powered their man to the White House, but their influence remains a potent force in Democratic politics. Dean's Web team, including Matthew Stoller and Jerome Armstrong, became some of the loudest voices in the lefty blogosphere and go-to gurus for all Democratic Internet campaigns. Ex–Dean staffers populate the Courage Campaign, a liberal activist group in the MoveOn.org mold. And Dean himself has run the Democratic National Committee since 2005. If Paul's people wanted to copy a movement, they could do a lot worse.
I heard the idea of a Ron Paul RNC chairmanship tossed around by Paulites in New Hampshire, and I heard it afterward. They know it's a pipe dream, but they're starting to ask: How might an activist libertarian splinter movement influence a larger and more moribund Republican organization? "We're learning this stuff for the first time," said D.C.-area Paul supporter Brett Guidry during the week of the Michigan primary. "The petitions, the caucuses, the logistical stuff."
At press time we don't know how many primary votes Paul won or when he'll make his next career decision: whether to jump from the GOP or seek an 11th term in Congress. There is strong sentiment for him to run on an independent or third-party ticket. "I came to this from the Libertarian Party," Paul worker Victor Germann told me on election night in New Hampshire. "I'm used to long shots and disappointments."
One of the campaign's slogans, seen on signs in every primary state, is "Dr. Paul cured my apathy." Paradoxically, Paul's influence might be greater if the candidate plays a smaller role in what comes next. If the people who sniped at the campaign's strategy stay involved in politics, the tiny population of libertarian activists will be that much larger for years or even decades to come. But if it's electoral totals and political strategy that define the rEVOLution, the movement is as good as over.
David Weigel is an associate editor of Reason.