Ron Paul’s Long Game

The libertarian’s looking good in Iowa, and he won’t just be a one-state wonder.

Ron Paul talks to an overflow crowd in Cedar Falls, IA.
Ron Paul addresses an overflow crowd in Cedar Falls, Iowa

David Weigel/Slate

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa—“We’re already done with Iowa,” Eric tells me after Ron Paul’s latest speech. “We were done weeks ago.”

What does he mean? He opens his MacBook Air and clicks on a spreadsheet with information about the 3.5 million glossy campaign documents he’s printing up for the “Ron Paul Super Brochure Precinct Blast.” Eric has started to fill orders for people in later primary states—6,849 for a volunteer in South Carolina, a few hundred for someone in Florida, where Eric lives. (Eric doesn’t want to give a last name, as this would “take credit” away from project funder Curt Schultz.) Order a batch and you get your name printed on the back, in case you want to mail them to voters.

“It’s not hidden, like a Super PAC,” says Eric. “It’s all transparent.”

Everyone in Iowa will tell you that Ron Paul’s Iowa campaign isn’t Iowan enough. The other campaigns all say it, and reporters speculate about it. It’s an important piece of the Iowa-caucus-doesn’t-matter-anymore argument we’ll hear if Paul wins the caucuses.

Unlike so much campaign chatter, this story is true. Talk to the man’s supporters—I followed Paul on a north-central Iowa “whistle stop tour”—and you inevitably run into Minnesotans, South Dakotans, Illinoisans, and Wisconsinites, none of whom can caucus on Tuesday night. You see Indiana license plates on cars with “LEGALIZE THE CONSTITUTION” stickers. There are people who drive for half a day or more to hear Ron Paul talk for 20 minutes about noninterventionism, hard money, and Ludwig Von Mises.

None of that is new, but now it’s strategy. One month ago, before any polls showed Paul leading in Iowa, the campaign started opening offices in the next round of caucus states—Colorado, Minnesota, Maine, North Dakota, Washington. Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith followed up with the campaign this week, finding five more state HQs tilling the dirt for Paul, activists versed in the various local Necronomicons of delegate selection.

As I followed Paul around, chasing his six-seat plane in a four-seat Chevy Impala, I asked his supporters what they’d do next. In Cedar Rapids, Chris Stolba, 20, and Ian Hollinger, 18, were shooting the breeze about drug policy, waiting for Paul and his son Rand. (Switzerland, they claimed, had no marijuana prohibition. This seemed too good to check.) They were actual Iowans, volunteering with a “grassroots action center” to help out Paul. Would they have time to help out Paul in Minnesota, a long but doable drive up the highway? They hoped so, partly because they expected a long campaign.

“I read an article about Romney calling Obama Marie Antoinette, and the Obama campaign calling Romney a multimillionaire,” said Stolba. “They’re being petty, and they’re going to beat each other up so Paul can win.”

“They’re the Mr. Potato [Head] candidates,” laughed Hollinger.

Nearby, a 29-year-old Air Force veteran named Andrew Struss gripped copies of Paul’s most-recent books. He was talking to Norm and Darlene Stevenson, 86 and 83, newlyweds who’d met in their retirement community, and who’d switched from Huckabee in 2008 to Paul in 2012. Struss had supported Paul all along. “I drove here from Des Moines, because I couldn’t get the signatures there,” he explained. “I’ll keep driving until I get them.” Struss is from Minnesota and lives and votes in South Dakota. “I’ve already signed up to be a precinct captain there,” he said.

Paul and Paul arrived on time, after the crowd had hit 250. Ron Paul gave a shorter version of his classic stump, only mentioning the caucuses as an aside: “There’s a good chance we’re going to do very well tomorrow!” Rand Paul handled the tray of red meat. “You’ve got so-called conservative Republican candidates, traipsing around Iowa, who support foreign aid,” he said. “There’s only one candidate who the Wall Street Journal referred to as ‘a statesman whose refusal to compromise is legendary.’ ”

As his father shook hands, I asked Rand if he, like everyone else in the room, was ready for a long campaign. Would he be stumping for his dad in Kentucky’s primary five months from now? “It just depends on how things go,” he said. “I’m definitely going to be in New Hampshire next week.” Another reporter asked him if his father would win the caucuses in Iowa, which make the rest of this easier. “It looks good.” What if Paul came in second? “That wouldn’t be as good.”

The Pauls flew to Cedar Falls, a town of around 40,000. When Northern Iowa University is in session, Paul can draw upward of 500 to a campaign event. On this day, he drew around one-half that many, including some college students—students who aren’t actually from Iowa can vote in the caucuses—and a couple of Democrats who wanted to cast anti-war Paul votes.

I talked to some ersatz Iowans before running into Paul Foss, who was holding a stack of Super Brochures. Where did I recognize him from? Oh, yes: Florida. For now, Foss was in Iowa helping to turn out votes in Chickasaw County. “We just got a list of 700 people to contact!” he reported. When he was done in the Midwest, he’d head back home to Florida, one of Paul’s least promising states—he got 3.23 percent of the vote last time—and join the other supporters who’d been prepping for this since mid-2008. “It moves over to us, verrrrry quickly!”

Right outside of the room—Paul was long gone now—was Justin Gleason, wearing a sweatshirt reading “Want to know who this Iraq War Vet supports for PRESIDENT?” Hint: not Barack Obama.

“He didn’t actually end the war, if you know the facts,” said Gleason. “We still have 17,000 contractors there. If it’s not a war, it’s a business venture, and I’m not going to support that.”

Gleason had come up to Iowa from Maryland, to work in a “grassroots office” in a supporter’s house. When Iowa was wrapped, he’d go back to his state and help Paul prep for the April 3 primary there.

“They keep saying, ‘Oh, he’s got a ceiling,’ and then they say, ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter if he wins,’ ” said Gleason. “They can keep on saying that up until he’s elected.”