A Night at the Caucus, and a Ron Paul Victory Party That Wasn't


As you saw below here on Hit and Run, despite some pretty widespread hope and anticipation from both the media (a week ago and earlier tonight) and a lot of his eager fans and grassroots volunteers (until late tonight), Ron Paul failed to win, or even come in second. This was not, it seems (at least the failure to win part) a huge surprise to more higher-level campaign staff.

As a Ron Paul admirer since 1988, having the sweet hope of victory held over my head for a moment led to a frustrating and dispiriting night. But–while all discussions of "moods of the room" are suspect, based, as they must be, on long talks with what by necessity will be a narrow unscientific sampling of the room–I seemed to be perhaps the most bummed person at the Paul "victory party." Even the many Iowans who started today expecting a win are still satisfied and eager footsoldiers in an ongoing Ron Paul Revolution.

Before the results poured in, I sat in on the caucus process in Precinct 5 in Ankeny, held in a high school gym about a mile from Paul's state HQ. More than 200 people showed up. I didn't stay long enough to see the official count. But the GOP precinct organizer–Ron Paul supporter Ross Witt–had the various candidates' fans bunch up in separate parts of the gym to pick their spokespeople, vote watchers, and potential delegate candidates. When that happened, Paul's crowd was the largest (and contained the only African-American in the room).

Talking to caucusgoers before the business began, I met an actual example of a type I was always told existed in abundance: a would-be Ron Paul fan turned off by his foreign policy. He was a young Ankeny-area attorney who used to consider himself a Paul man but decided Paul's fervent dedication to not starting pre-emptive wars was too punctilious in the face of the perceived threat of Iran. His buddy with him was undecided when he came in, though leaning Bachmann. (Coming from the libertarian tradition of highly rationalistic politics derived from first principles, I find the meandering and seemingly senseless approach to these decisions of the average undecided voter somewhat confusing and maddening–this guy was able to see a lot he liked in everyone from Romney to Santorum to Paul.) I met a heavily bearded working man in dirty clothes who expressed his love for Paul as deriving entirely from "I just want less government." He wasn't sure he could wait an hour to vote, but did. (The majority profession I heard from Paul men I spoke to tonight, between the caucus and the campaign's results-watching party, was some sort of laborer/manual worker. Paul is not just pulling pencil-necked geeks and weirdo intellectuals.)

I talked a while at the caucus with Paul precinct co-captain Scott Hanson, a successful salesman for Homemakers Furniture (million-dollar club multiple years). Hanson is a longtime fan of the world of electoral politics for the glamor; he has tales of having met nearly every major figure in the GOP of the past few decades and has known Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad since he was a boy. He tells me he has always enjoyed just palling around with pols, but finds Paul is the only one who inspired a serious devotion in him since Reagan–because he sees Paul as the only politician with solutions to the serious problems that he sees presenting America with a "do or die" crisis. His love for Paul has even made him realize Sean Hannity, who he used to love, isn't as stalwart as he believed.

I met a couple of ladies who were part of the huge wave of freshly-minted Santorum fans, having turned from Bachmann. Like all Iowans, they've been getting double-digit calls from candidates every day for the past few weeks; one of them had gotten Paul-sponsored anti-Santorum calls in the past couple of days (which led Santorum to call Paul "disgusting"). She was disappointed, and was aware of Paul's previous reputation for not indulging in that sort of attack politics. Paul's campaign has decided to eschew such high-mindedness this time around, though rarely will you hear direct attacks on specific competitors from Paul's own mouth.

Despite Paul fans' reputation for endless willingness to go anywhere anytime and tell people about Ron Paul, no one was at the caucus handing out Paul literature. Both Santorum and Perry had a couple of canvassers doing so for them. (Pair of young ladies for Perry, less-young men for Santorum.) This lack of Paul muscle-on-the-ground at the caucuses was also noted by Paulites at at least three other precincts, and all of them were surprised no volunteers were there trying to sway last-minute undecideds. While I have no macrostats on this, Paul fans from two different precincts reported 10-15 percent of the Paul votes at their precinct coming from non-Republicans who re-registered Republican that evening at the caucus.

As I left the caucus to drive to the Paul results-watching party, CNN was reporting Paul in the lead based on early entry polls, though that disappeared quickly. Hundreds of Paul fans and media–in nearly equal numbers, it seemed–filled a ballroom at the Courtyard Inn in Ankeny.

I met a lot of non-Iowans there on basic Ron Paul fan roadtrips, including a solo sojourner from north of Minneapolis, a pair from Chicago, and a team from Texas. (The first four people I randomly approached to chat were all out-of-staters.) I learned, again, that Ron Paul fans think hard and act hard on how to promote their man, with nearly everyone I met having their own particular plan for Paul promotion, and nearly all saying that everyone in their lives knows all-too-well that they are Ron Paul People.

I found Iowans are mighty confused by Santorum's unexpected rise to the top, and mostly blame it on his rising too fast to be vetted properly and thoroughly by the voters. I ran into two sitting state legislators who are Paul fans (Kim Pearson and Glen Massie) and two who will be running on a Paulite platform this year for state legislative seats (David Edwards and Matt Devries). Most of the people who actually work for the campaign didn't want to say much for the record tonight or were not readily available for comment. 

I ran into a few people who were surprised, given how roundly Paul won their precinct, surprised enough to want to see the specific per-precinct figure breakdown before they were sure the results were legit. But that seemed more frustration than conspiracy theory. One Paul dude made the case–which I concur with–that the past 24 hours of Fox News amounted to a free half-million attack ad buy against Paul from his enemies.

I met a team of RevolutionPAC (a Paulite superpac) supporters, including Dan Johnson and John Moore. Moore is a Veteran for Ron Paul with two Iraq stints behind him. He tells me that "as bullets were whizzing by my head in Iraq Irealized I wasn't making this country safer," especially when he came home to the Patriot Act and crippling partially war-caused crushing debt. Johnson and Moore are on the road riling up the grassroots independently of the campaign, and working with iRoots.org to produce Paul-promoting Net video content. Johnson tells me RevPAC is raising money to further spread their "Compassion of Ron Paul" ad, featuring a black man with a white wife who Paul helped for free as a doctor. 

I talked to Paul volunteer Allen Huffman, who works for Wells Fargo. Like every other volunteer I spoke to, his stories of Paul activism were largely based in working the phones–finding Paul supporters, finding what their issues were and selling them on those issues, and making sure the Paul-committed were energized, motivated, and helped in getting out to the caucuses today. He told me months ago a Paul campaign staffer gave a talk to a squad of volunteers in which she laid out almost precisely what happened with Paul's slow, steady rise–with the caveat that she said the goal was to get Paul to number one on caucus day and not a day earlier. Having risen to the top in some polls before Christmas may well have been one of Paul's problems.

As a piece from Business Insider being sent around by the Paulfolk on Facebook all day and night indicates, when it comes to actually winning the delegates of the state of Iowa, tonight's non-binding caucus results mean nothing at all. Actual delegate votes happen later, and the caucus results don't bind the delegates. Tonight, after the presidential vote and after lots and lots of people leave (I'd say at least half walked out after the vote at the caucus I attended), they vote on delegates to the county convention, which in March will pick delegates to the state convention, which will later pick delegates to the Republican National Convention in Tampa.

I have some anecdotal evidence from tonight that Paul people were disciplined enough to actually stay long enough to win delegate seats, often by being the only people there even willing to be one by the time the selection process came around. One young Paulite bragged to me about how he was quite sure the Paul team had the delegate issue in the bag after tonight; when I asked him to elaborate on how he knew, he noticed the notepad in my hand, asked if I was a reporter, and pretty much ran away from me when I said I was. (The Paul campaign imposes a very tight message discipline, that is, it orders most of its employees and volunteers not to talk to reporters. Most of them obey.)

That said, there is more to "winning Iowa" than winning Iowa's delegates. Winning the caucus vote adds to the whole momentum thing, the whole designated frontrunner thing, the whole media attention and respect thing.

There is also, on the other hand, the whole "painting a target on your back" thing, which Santorum most definitely did tonight. The happy spin from Paul higher-ups has them still chugging ahead with their money, their fundraising prowess, their devoted fans, their great ideas that no other candidate can steal, and without the tsuris that a frontrunner Paul would surely draw on himself. Paul insisted tonight only he and Romney have the money and momentum to actually fight it out nationally through primary and caucus season.

And that is a happy spin indeed. The happiest spin, though, came from Paul's chin-up presentation to his fans after he was clearly third place. Paul said that his campaign and fans have reintroduced an idea into the Republican Party and American politics that is vitally needed: that "freedom is popular."

Paul's speech to his people tonight:

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