Campaigns/Elections

Ron Paul Revolution: What Now?

The Paul campaign definitely isn't winning first ballot. But there's still much to win.

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After Super Tuesday, it's officially official: Ron Paul won't go into Tampa with enough delegates to win the presidential nomination.

Still, because of the unbound nature of 197 extant delegates from caucus states, and his campaign's diligent efforts to ensure that their people rise through the convoluted GOP state convention process, it's likely that he has many more committed delegates in hand than the media counts.

And as still-excited Paul partisans will tell you: Paul can't go into Tampa with enough to win on first ballot. As The Daily Beast points out, it seems unlikely that Mitt Romney, clearly in the lead now, can do so either.

This raises speculations about a brokered convention, and Paul's campaign chair Jesse Benton sees that as hopeful for Ron Paul—in fact, it's the only hope he's got to actually get the nomination.

Anything can happen at a brokered convention—in our imaginations at least. Given the general attitudes of the average GOP stalwart, though, it's hard to imagine Ron Paul coming out of one a winner. Ronald Reagan in 1976 made quite the push to deny leader Gerald Ford the nomination when Ford lacked a clear majority going into the convention, and even Reagan, god-saint of modern Republicanism, failed. Former GOP superstrategist Roger Stone, who lived through those days, reminded me that Reagan actually represented the views and enthusiasms of the mass of GOP activists in his day in a way Ron Paul does not now. This makes it even less likely Paul will succeed with any last-minute Tampa coup.

But in the anything-goes fever dreams of a brokered convention, even the bound delegates will eventually become unbound. Which is why Paul's vaunted delegate strategy isn't only seeking to get delegates in unbound caucus states. They are working hard on training and educating their people on how to become delegates everywhere and anywhere they can, even if they are bound to vote their state's voters' preferences for someone else the first time. Benton says that such delegate training and education is "absolutely one of the most important things" they are doing. Various activists across the country have told me of being contacted out of the blue by campaign volunteers or workers and talked into going through the GOP's rigmarole (which varies state by state) to seek delegate seats.

So as far as Paul himself, his campaign, and a lot of his supporters are concerned, it ain't over. Still, Politico described the Paul camp's mood as frustrated in this story after Tuesday, and it's easy to imagine that's true. Look at the dark side: no outright popular vote victories, despite hopes for such victories ranging from Iowa at the start to Maine to North Dakota to Alaska to Washington to Idaho. A clean win now mathematically impossible. Free media dwindling. Opponents who they dreamed they could have rid themselves of a month or more ago riding high. Even Paul's vaunted and clear command of the youth vote, manifest in the early states, has slipped away lately, with him tying for the grim 5 percent turnout of under-30s with Romney and Santorum.

Still, Benton says that "we are very pleased with where we are right now, this is how we scripted it, this is where we envisioned being at and we are pleased. Certainly we would have liked to win a beauty contest or two [by winning a state popular vote], but as far as our position for delegate allocation we are exactly where we hoped we'd be."

The campaign has continued to emulate their very promising early strategy of heavy phone calls combined with mail and candidate appearances—though never quite able to emulate the amount of all those in later states, lacking the many months of concentrated build-up that Iowa and New Hampshire allowed.

"Dr. Paul has said many time that if you don't like what the establishment is giving you, you need to become the establishment, take over the party with people we trust are committed and want to do the right thing," Benton says. Indeed, in Los Angeles this weekend I attended a meeting where local Paul activists planned to get a slate of pure Paul people elected to run LA's GOP Central Committee, and to support various of their fellows own runs for elective office.

While there have been stumbles—Nevada came in grossly below what the campaign's own internal polling indicated, and the constant media talk of a Romney/Paul alliance has been an annoying distraction, one Benton sees as "blatantly planted" by Santorum's team—Benton still cheerily insists Paul knows they are running "a marathon and not a sprint" and he's fully committed to fighting to the end if their people continue to give them the funds to do so.

Even for those who question Benton's optimism, objective signs of encouragement exist, especially for those who understand Paul's candidacy in the context of a long, long game of libertarian advocacy and political, social, and cultural change.

He pulled 1.1 million votes total last time, and already has around 900,000 so far now. He's consistently far outperformed his state by state vote totals from 2008 to now, generally by twice or more, in some cases (South Carolina, Washington, Virginia) by more than four times. He continues to show great strength with independents and Democrats. Republicans should remember, no one can win a national election only appealing to Republicans (with 40 percent of the electorate identifying independent). His crowds are still huge, his people are still giving, and libertarian ideas have found in him a champion whose effectiveness and pull has been unparalleled in living memory. Looking forward, even those who sigh and realize a Paul victory is even more wildly unlikely than a year ago get excited about a team of Paulite House and Senate candidates.

While after Super Tuesday in 2008 the Paul campaign began to retreat and retrench a bit, two days out there are no signs of that. An email from Paul via the campaign yesterday says, in classic campaign mail style, that:

I am determined to proudly battle on, picking up more delegates and skewering the pretensions and historical rewrites of ALL the establishment candidates – Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich.

And I will continue to proudly speak up for liberty, respecting the Constitution in domestic and foreign policy, and returning to a limited government that acts and spends within its means.

And I will continue to do so as long as you will stand with me.

With all that good news/bad news swirling about, the Paul grassroots are in a bit of a swirl themselves. They are a contentious and talky bunch in their Internet centers such as Daily Paul and Ron Paul Forums. Surveying the chatter there one finds a mixture of Benton's chin-up optimism, some intelligent realization that the fight they are fighting for an active and effective liberty movement is bigger than just Paul's presidential run, mingling uneasily with frustration with stupid sheeple, accusations of vote fraud, and slow realization that lots and lots of the huge crowds Ron can reliably draw in faraway places are actually traveling Paulistas, not local votes. Many an assumption that everyone at a multi-thousand-person Paul rally would vote in that area's caucus or primary has come a cropper, leading to dark assumptions of skullduggery. But as I've found at Paul rallies across the nation, he's just got dedicated fans who will travel far and wide to see him, even if they can't vote there.

Talking to Paul partisans in various states, I found examples of both cheer and concern, some in the same mind. Lisa Miller, chieftain of the largely net-based activist group Tea Party WDC (Washington, D.C.) which she founded in 2009 in the initial wave of Tea Party fervor, was a former Bachmann woman who went Paul, and was pleasantly surprised that her native Virginia, with no option on the ballot but Romney or Paul, went nearly 41 percent for Paul.

Miller is a single mom who tries to sell Paul to most people she knows outside her profession in the insurance and financial services industry. While it can take a while to "address all the foreign affairs issues my friends and family had, they went through a shock period" on those matters, she says, "but since then it's been very easy to demonstrate the disastrous mistakes made in our foreign policy." With the Arab Spring, for example, Miller thinks, "was it worth it to be involved, or better to simply cut off all the money" to Arab dictators. "We could have gotten the same results but without our fingerprints" marring things. Paul's record on fiscal probity and government-shrinking is far more solid than that of his foes, who are scarfing up the self-identified Tea Party vote most places. "Fifty percent of the Tea party people didn't do intellectual legwork," Miller says, or are fearful of the economic correction that might come if government attempts to prop up the economy faltered. "Many of them like to talk about the Founding Fathers, but when it comes to the nitty gritty work of cutting government, that scares them." But she was cheered that even over 40 percent of voters in Virginia, near the heart of beltway government and bureaucratic dependency, voted for Paul.

Money, as that email that went out from Paul yesterday shows, is vital moving forward. Benton says they have gathered more than the $31 million The Wall Street Journal recently reported. But campaign funds aren't everything in this age of SuperPACS, the true stars of the campaign narrative this season.

The first Ron Paul SuperPAC, RevolutionPAC, is still active and planning future ad buys in states down the line, according to its treasurer Gary Franchi. While Franchi didn't want to talk dollars, their last FEC report says they've spent nearly a half million. They've done TV ad buys in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, and also work on independent poll watching and exit polling and develop alternative media for freedom fans, including live news coverage broadcasts on election nights, featuring such Paul-world stars as investment advisor and former Senate candidate Peter Schiff, and former would-be Pelosi-killer John Dennis.

Franchi says they have "over 10,000 people tuning in to our broadcast, quite a number of people who feel disenfranchised by mainstream media turning to our reporting to get essential nourishment that they need." Franchi's comment touches on a point I've made before—that for many, ideological and political activism and obsession, whether or not it changes the world, can function as a pure consumption expense, something they participate in because they enjoy it.

In the world of Paul SuperPACS, though, far more attention—largely thanks to its colorful main donor, futurist and investor Peter Thiel—has gone to Endorse Liberty, which annoyed some in the Paul camp by announcing post-Super Tuesday that they were rethinking Ron Paul as the center of their pro-liberty activism. Many in the world of Paul fans grumble that the $3.4 million Endorse Liberty spent, which apparently mostly went to online ads, including video ads on YouTube, did not make much of a public impact. (Endorse Liberty itself did not respond by press time to a request for comment.) Benton says as far as he's seen, Endorse Liberty "to myself or many professional consultants with tons of campaign experience, we haven't seen how any money they spent has done anything effective."

Such complaints about efforts misdirected or opportunities ungrabbed flow around all projects of passion that don't pay off as people hoped—either the people expending the effort or people just watching. I've heard complaints from both long-time Paul watchers and fresh fans that failing to win Iowa ruined everything; that they should have realized Virginia was a possible big win and spent and fought there accordingly; that the campaign isn't laying enough groundwork in Paul's big-delegate home state of Texas, or the activist-rich California; that Paul needs to do more events, or that they need to spend more on TV. As former GOP strategist Stone says, every penny should go to "communication, television, radio, mail, any dollar not spent on those things is wasted, especially since media doesn't cover Paul the way they do other candidates."

What does recent history teach about the possibilities and prospects of insurgent ideological campaigns in the GOP? Scott McConnell, who was a high-level staffer on Pat Buchanan's 2000 Reform Party campaign (and rang doorbells for the Democratic Party's antiwar insurgent Gene McCarthy in 1968)—which brought Buchanan's political career to an ignominious 0.4 percent end—concludes that, no matter how much the threat of Paul bolting might be keeping the GOP fearful of the Paul movement, "third parties are a dead end in American politics." McConnell looks at young Paulites like Michigan Republican Rep. Justin Amash and believes there is more space for them in the Republican Party, at least below the presidential level, than angry disillusioned Paulites might think right now. "Pat hurt his influence in the GOP and conservative moment by running Reform, and Paul will help the force of his ideas moving forward by not making a similar mistake."

Many Paul fans would see victory in Paul's being actually allowed a prominent, well-covered speaking slot at the Tampa GOP convention—an opportunity Buchanan used in 1992 to relaunch a culture war that some now blame for costing Bush the election to Clinton. Timothy Stanley, author of the new Buchanan biography The Crusader, tells me that Buchanan's speech was about rousing the GOP base; a similar Paul speech now would have the opposite effect, potentially appealing to the independents and young voters who tend to like Paul.

But if Paul fails to endorse the eventual Republican candidate, it's hard to say what use the party would get out of throwing Paul such a bone. Bones like that, even like platform changes for Paul positions like curbing the Federal Reserve, might not be that vital, thinks John Carney, now with CNBC and a high-level Buchanan campaign operative from the 1996 run. What Paul's people need to do is "think about what happens after the nomination," Carney says. "There will be all this ferment about platforms and speeches but those are not as important as keeping your national organization alive, keeping your mailing lists and phone lists and not allowing the national organization to fall into disrepair, continue to get the message of liberty moving after the campaign is over."

"The things Paul stands for will be as important the day after the nomination as the day before," he continues. "Platforms don't mean much these days, it's just a symbolic victory and the symbolism isn't as important as it once was." Paul does have, since 2008, organizations such as Campaign for Liberty and Young Americans for Liberty ready for action, not to mention his own LibertyPAC. Benton, though, says they are too concerned with this campaign to meaningfully discuss the potential future of the Paul movement in a world where he is not president in 2013.

Longtime GOP superstrategist Stone, who recently announced he was leaving his lifelong political home for the Libertarian Party, doesn't necessarily agree that Paul's movement needs to stay GOP faithful. Even if the fate of Paul the politician is to remain in the GOP, Stone says that "if you are a Ron Paul voter in the primary, then logically you should be a Gary Johnson voter in the general," presuming the former GOP New Mexico governor wins the Libertarian Party nomination he is seeking. "I have a hard time believing either Obama or Mitt could appeal to the libertarian-leaning voters coming out for Paul, particularly those between 18-30." Stone, as befits his recent departure of the GOP, isn't sure Paul's explicit strategy of trying to feed his people into positions and candidacies within the Republic Party can really work. He doesn't think the GOP can ever be open to the social views of libertarians, or will even ever get serious about shrinking the government's size and activities.

The expectation game is tricky. One person who has worked with Paul in the past notes that those mocking Paul for his manifest inability to actually win right now would never have credited him with the ability to have done as well as he has actually done—close third in Iowa, second in New Hampshire, lots of delegates, on line for a major convention speech and some platform influence—that seemed like a wild fantasy for Paul fans a year ago. "He did better than the Queen of the Tea Party and the popular sitting governor of his own state," that person says. "Look, you've been watching Paul since 1988 [like me]. Back then he was yelling at morbidly obese people on the Mort Downey show. Now he's got tens of thousands of young people excited about reading Mises and Rothbard. What other candidate has fans excited because he's changed their entire worldview and now they go out and reading books and are on fire to spread this knowledge they've gotten? Certainly not Romney, or even Newt, who fancies himself the intellectual of the Republican Party."

Jack Hunter, the co-author of Rand Paul's book The Tea Party Goes to Washington and a Paul campaign spokesman, explains in a buck-up-the-troops video that Paul is the only one standing up for the fresh ideas that can save the country from ruin, and that thus "Ron Paul and his movement own the future. Never forget it…keep your chins up and let's keep fighting."

It may or may not turn out to be true, but if you believe in justice, liberty, or America's healthy future, it had pretty much better be (again, beyond the specific electoral fate of any specific politician); which makes it worth believing in and fighting for.

Senior Editor Brian Doherty is author of Radicals for Capitalism (PublicAffairs) and the forthcoming Ron Paul's Revolution (Broadside).