Where Did It All Go Wrong?

A thrilling and dispiriting year for libertarian politics


On the afternoon of July 6, 2007, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas emerged from his taxi to what was becoming a shockingly familiar sight: Dozens of fans waving handmade or Internet-bought "Ron Paul" signs.

They had been waiting outside the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., for up to 45 minutes, ready to greet the long-shot Republican presidential candidate as he arrived for an interview with George Stephanopoulos, chief Washington correspondent for ABC News. The famous interviewer had walked into the hotel minutes earlier, smiling at the crowd, but was barely noticed. The obscure congressman was greeted with shouts, cheers, and a bunch of hand-held cameras.

I asked Paul about reports that his rival Sen. John McCain—then cratering in the polls—might take public financing. "He needs it," Paul said, chuckling. "We don't need it!"

Inside the hotel the politician known as "Dr. No" told Stephanopoulos his campaign had raised $2.4 million in the second quarter, quadrupling his numbers from the quarter before. "We're on the upslope," said Paul. "We feel good about what's happening."

Stephanopoulos asked just one tough question: "What's success for you in this campaign?"

"What's success?" Paul pondered this. "Well, to win, is one, is the goal—"

"That's not going to happen."

Paul was taken aback. "Do you know for—absolute? Are you willing to bet your—every cent in your pocket for that?"


"You are. OK. I thought so when I ran for Congress." The congressman laughed and moved on.

Paul's life was changing dramatically. Within six months he would raise another $25 million for his campaign, giving him a larger war chest than McCain at the time. Within ayear he would draw thousands of supporters to a "Revolution March" in Washington, leading up to a massive "Rally for the Republic" just minutes from the site of the Republican National Convention. By the end of 2008, Ron Paul would be a bona fide national political figure: author of a No. 1 New York Times bestseller, subject of two quickie biographies, a frequent guest on cable news shows.

But 2008 would end with Stephanopoulos' question hanging. What was success? Having failed to win the Republican nomination, did Paul's candidacy affect the big-government direction of the GOP? Did it improve the fortunes of a more ideologically compatible political grouping, the Libertarian Party, which nominated Paul for president in 1988 and still counts him as a lifetime member?

Optimism for the Paul campaign peaked in December 2007 and faded by February 2008. Optimism for Libertarian candidate Bob Barr's effort to pick up the Paul banner peaked in May and was in tatters by September. By November, mutual recriminations from both camps put libertarians in a familiar political position: bitterly blaming one another for their ongoing marginalization. "Paul set the liberty movement back a decade by encouraging people to stay in the GOP," Barr Communications Director Shane Cory told me just days before the election. Paul Communications Director Jesse Benton described Barr's campaign as "disappointing" after the election. "They got more and more desperate."

Paul launched his presidential bid on January 11, 2007. In the first three months of the year, he raised only $640,000 and hired a skeletal staff. The momentum shift came on May 15, 2007, when Paul butted heads with Rudy Giuliani in the second GOP presidential debate. Pressed on whether he thought the United States could still follow a "humble foreign policy" after 9/11, Paul tried to explain the theory of blowback. "Have you ever read the reasons they attacked us?" he asked. "They attack us because we've been over there." A sputtering Giuliani demanded that Paul "withdraw that comment and tell us that he didn't really mean that." The South Carolina crowd roared. Paul refused to back down, and was heavily booed.

"A lot of people thought that would be our death knell," Benton recalls. Back in D.C., a Giuliani-supporting peer (Paul won't say who) thanked the Texas congressman for "helping my guy out." But Paul benefited more than Giuliani, receiving a surge of donations and media profiles. "It really rocketed our campaign forward," says Benton. Of the $2.4 million three-month fund raising haul that Paul told Stephanopoulos about, nearly all of it came in the weeks after the debate.

The new energy around Paul siphoned attention away from the Libertarian Party. Eleven days before the South Carolina debate, minor celebrity oddsmaker Wayne Allyn Root had announced a bid for the party's nomination, entering a field that included medical marijuana activist Steve Kubby, Massachusetts party chair George Phillies, and software entrepreneur Michael Jingozian. But the only libertarian the press wanted to cover was Paul.

"While Ron was running there was no interest in anyone else in the libertarian movement," Root says. "Not for me, not for anyone in the L.P. The oxygen was sucked out of the room." On July 17, Kubby promised to leave the race and encourage the L.P. to run no candidate if Paul won the GOP nomination.

The excitement around the "rEVOLution" reached a crescendo on November 5 with an online "money bomb" that raised $4.2 million on the anniversary of Guy Fawkes' attempt to blow up the British Parliament. Paul had been winning nonbinding Republican straw polls in Iowa, Alabama, New York, and elsewhere, and was surging into double digits in early primary state polling.

The Libertarian National Committee chose to ride the wave. On the first weekend in December, the party's southeast regional representative proposed a resolution that "in the event that Republican primary voters select a candidate other than Congressman Paul in February of 2008, the Libertarian National Committee urges Congressman Ron Paul to seek the presidential nomination of the Libertarian Party." The motion was adopted unanimously. The representative behind the resolution: former Georgia congressman Bob Barr.

On December 16, the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, a second Paul money bomb raised $6 million. The Libertarian Party's 1988 nominee was about to raise more funds than any other Republican in the year's final quarter. The political aspirations ofmany libertarians were focused on a Republican.

The first signal that those dreams would fall short came in the January 3, 2008 Iowa caucuses, where a Paul campaign hoping to finish third with results in the high teens finished fifth with 10 percent. The candidate then belatedly threw himself into New Hampshire, hoping the Live Free or Die state, with its famously independent streak, would reward the only anti-war Republican in the field.

No such luck. Paul came in fifth again on January 8, with a paltry 8 percent of the vote, and the campaign never fully recovered.

"The fact is that our candidate was never sure about running," argues Justine Lam, Paul's e-media coordinator. "People in the grassroots blamed the campaign for Ron not spending more time in New Hampshire. I understand them, but that was the candidate's decision. He wasn't putting all his effort into it."

Although Paul finished an impressive second place in Nevada on January 19, the campaign failed to craft a strategy for the 22-state Super Tuesday on February 5, Benton says. Instead of concentrating on proportional representation states, where a second or third place showing could win delegates, they frittered away their time.

"We showed we could do well in caucuses," Benton says, "and if we had devoted more resources to them we could have won five or six states, like Montana, North Dakota, Alaska. We dedicated too many resources to closed Republican primaries. They were too hard to win, and we probably should have realized that."

Two days later, chief McCain rival Mitt Romney appeared at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., and officially suspended his campaign. Hours later, Ron Paul walked onto the same stage, after an introduction by Bob Barr. "We now have the gold standard for being a conservative," Barr told the enthusiastic CPAC crowd, "and it's Dr. Ron Paul!" A rumor buzzed around the room: Barr was ready to take the baton for his own run.

But for months, nothing happened. Instead, the energy of the Paul campaign just slowly dissipated. A neoconservative Republican named Chris Peden had filed against Paul for his House seat in Texas and was claiming to anyone who would listen that he had Paul on the ropes. On February 11—the day before primaries in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia—Paul released a perplexing YouTube message acknowledging that the March 4 House primary "might change my schedule a little bit" and that his presidential campaign was scaling down. "To tell you that Peden played no factor would not be honest," Benton says. Still, Paul ended up routing the challenger by 41 points.

Other politicians were beginning to angle after Paul's voters. On March 18, Democratic presidential candidate and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel told me, "If Ron Paul could raise all that money with his libertarian message, you know, I think I could raise a lot of money." Eight days later Gravel entered the Libertarian race. The same week, party mainstay Mary Ruwart joined the fight. Meanwhile, friends of Barr were making calls to see if the 1990s drug warrior could win the nomination of a party with many members who found him unacceptable.

Justine Lam considers this the period when the great libertarian momentum of 2008 was lost. "Ron didn't drop out in March, when he should have dropped out," she says. While Paul was focusing on his House seat, presidential campaign chairman Kent Snyder proposed that the national effort be officially dissolved and a new organization launched, to focus on educating voters, pushing libertarian legislation, lobbying members of Congress, and recruiting candidates for Congress. On June 12, a week after the final three primaries in Montana, South Dakota, and New Mexico netted him three second-place finishes and zero delegates, Paul finally launched the Campaign for Liberty, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.

By that point, Barr had won the Libertarian nomination in a narrow victory over Ruwart. Root, another '90s Republican, defeated Kubby for the vice presidential nomination, a reward for a last-minute endorsement that put Barr over the top. The Barr/Root ticket hoped to pick up not just Paul's voters but as many of his activists and donors as possible.

One stubborn thorn in Barr's side was the Constitution Party bid of the paleoconservative pastor Chuck Baldwin. Baldwin had defeated gadfly Alan Keyes for the C.P. nomination in large part by hinting he could get Paul's endorsement. Party founder Howard Phillips had commended Baldwin to delegates by suggesting that Paul's $35 million in fund raising were "resources we can look to if we nominate a candidate who has been a friend of Ron Paul." Over the summer, Baldwin and Barr campaigned for different halves of the Paul movement. While Baldwin inveighed against the New World Order at the D.C. Revolution March with speakers such as Phillips and leftist writer Naomi Wolf, Barr and Root campaigned at Freedom Fest, a Las Vegas gathering with speakers such as Steve Forbes and Christopher Hitchens.

"The tone from the Barr campaign had been getting more and more exasperated," remembers Benton. "They thought they'd swoop in and take Ron's supporters, hit 5 percent in the polls, get into the debates."

On September 10, Paul invited Barr and Baldwin, along with Green nominee Cynthia McKinney and independent Ralph Nader, to an event at the National Press Club where the candidates would sign a four-pronged statement of principles on foreign policy, privacy, the deficit, and the Federal Reserve, and win Paul's endorsement—all of them, equally. Barr signed the statement but pulled out of the press conference, scheduling his own event nearby to criticize Paul for splitting up the "pro-freedom" vote. Paul was furious. Twelve days later he endorsed Baldwin.

It would be easy to overstate the impact of the falling-out. "I'd like to think Dr. Paul doing what he did probably pumped a few hundred thousand extra votes into the third parties," speculates Benton. "But I don't think he had a tremendous effect." Barr campaign manager Russ Verney is more blunt: "Look what Paul did for Baldwin. Not much." Baldwin ended up getting about as many votes (186,457) as the Constitution Party's first candidate, Howard Phillips, 12 years earlier; Barr won 511,529 votes, the highest Libertarian total since 1980 but only the fourth highest in percentage terms. Paul, by contrast, won 1.2 million votes in the Republican primaries.

The year ended with George Stephanopoulos' question still hanging. What, for Ron Paul in 2008, was success? Whatever it was, the Libertarian Party could not capture it.

David Weigel is an associate editor of reason.