"Ron Paul! Ron Paul! Ron Paul, You Rock! Ron Paul Revolution!" Even Ron Paul himself seemed slightly surprised at the vehement enthusiasm that 280 students brought to the opening ceremonies of "Ron Paul's Christmas Vacation," a week-long program of pre-caucus student canvassing in Iowa. Though national polls put Paul around 1%, the students, many of whom would be braving ruggedly frigid conditions camping in empty Iowan summer cabins, were pumped. The crowd was truly a mixed bag: strict pacifists, ardent Republicans, punks who never before deigned participate in the process, war veterans aghast at what they saw in Iraq, and a few older folks who got red in the face just discussing illegal immigration. (Although, it should be noted, the crowd was about 80% male.)
Where as many contemporary politicians find their ego ideal in the 20th century - be it Ronald Reagan or FDR - Paul's supporters see him as a reflection of heroes from the pre-telegraph era, repeatedly citing George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Positioning government as an incompetent, petty little bureaucrat who enhances nothing and muddles everything, Paul in his speech to the assembled students noted that our rights come not from government but "from the creator."
After articulating his platform of nonintervention, "freedom" and strict constitutionalism, he went on to say that if he became President, since he would be dismantling so many federal agencies, his "job would be greatly reduced, so I would take a major pay cut." He followed that up by declaring "I don't want to run the economy. I don't know how to." (That seems a bit of a worrisome statement from a candidate confident enough to offer a campaign t-shirt emblazoned with "Abolish the Fed.")
For the audience, presumably part of the 45% of young Americans who do not believe that the federal government cares about their generation, the notion of stripping it bare seems boldly appealing. College-age conservatives with an abiding love for Milton Friedman and drowning government in the bathtub have only truly known one Republican president in their lifetime and he hasn't exactly kept a tight hand on the government pursestrings. As John Zambenini, Paul's young Iowa press coordinator put it, "Bush spends money like two drunk Democrats."
However, even more students seemed drawn to his foreign policy positions than his domestic priorities. As the only Republican presidential candidate to vote against the war, Paul's desire for immediate withdrawal from Iraq generated tremendous enthusiasm amongst the assembled students. Jordan Rhea, a student at a private Christian college, noted that Christians had lost their focus on "love your neighbor" in recent years. "Too many Republican Christians say 'they're all evil, we're good', but it is just not that simple." Kyle Johnson, 19, who has no party affiliation and had never previously been involved in politics, says he supports Paul, in part, because of his fear of a draft and his desire to "end American empire." William Stewart-Starks, a thoughtful young veteran who served in Iraq and was drawn to Paul through that experience explained, "it is really hard to talk to people about my experiences there, it stays with you. I was a medic and it just all seemed so senseless."
Almost every student I spoke with had first heard of the Ron Paul campaign not from the Ron Paul campaign itself but from its vastly effective decentralized machinery which echoes some of the early success of the Howard Dean campaign by creating a tremendous feeling of ownership and empowerment amongst his young supporters. Paul relies on online microdonation drives orchestrated by regular supporters. He harnesses pre-existing internet communities instead of trying to build one "owned" by the campaign. The Paul campaign site directs visitors outward to Facebook, digg, twitter, and meetup.
Campaign officials seem happy to let their young supporters self-organize, as they largely did with the Christmas Break event. Similarly, students spoke with particular pride about the Ron Paul blimp. Yes, it is the first blimp for a presidential candidate and it is probably orbiting around New Hampshire right now. Supporters quickly raised $400,000 on the internet to make it possible. As the blimp project is being described, another student walks by and enthusiastically says, "the internet is totally libertarian."
Zephyr Teachout, a law professor and former head of internet organizing for Dean, notes the importance of decentralization to both the Dean and the Paul campaigns and explains that it isn't just about utilizing cool internet tools (How many times can journalists mention how the number of MySpace friends each candidate has without drawing conclusions about what it actually signifies?) Instead, Teachout says, decentralization is "done in the million tiny communications that signal, "I'm happy when you act on your own, I respect you as a political actor" instead of "I've got it all figured out."
Of course, decentralization certainly has its downsides for Ron Paul given that the campaign tends to attract a diverse set of followers including a good number of eccentric conspiracy theorists and paranoid cranks. For instance, much has been made of the relationship between Paul and Alex Jones, a radio talk show host who believes 9/11 was an inside job. As opposed to the incredibly strict message discipline that most presidential campaigns rely on, Paul seems to manage their supporters, no matter how crazy they may be, with a lighter touch.
Students I spoke with admiringly mentioned what they perceived as Paul's integrity, honesty, consistency and lack of "phoniness." (One popular story: as a doctor in Texas, Paul apparently didn't accept Medicaid or Medicare, federally funded programs he doesn't believe in, but would pro-rate or donate his services.) In a political age of compromise and equivocation, Paul's extremely ideologically driven campaign stands as a striking counterpoint for supporters. But this enthusiasm for his personal traits sometimes seems to overshadow an understanding of his specific policy proposals. I would imagine many of his supporters would be hard pressed to explain how America would benefit from a return to the gold standard. Of course, to be fair, I think most Americans would be hard pressed to explain how the gold standard worked.
This utter consistency of Paul's ideology, where nothing comes in half-measures, seems like a utopian, self-contained universe where one improbable idea flows logically to the next. Adam Wood, a student from Kansas, explained that even Paul's ideas can't all realistically be implemented, he respected what he saw as the only hypocrisy free candidate in the Republican establishment, saying "For example, how can you be pro-life on abortion and then be pro-capital punishment? That's just political pandering."
Ultimately, young Americans who feel that they live in a political desert will crawl towards anything, even a mirage, hoping it is an oasis. Even if I disagree with much of Ron Paul's platform, by and large, his young supporters I spoke with were, by and large, enthusiastic, thoughtful, committed and, contrary to popular opinion, they don't wear tinfoil hats. (At least not to formal functions.) However, given the ideological broadness of his support base at the Christmas Break camp, the Paul tent has become very, very big. If a Paul government ever came to power, they might realize just how little many of them have in common.
But on this evening during this first event of what promises to be a long week on the campaign trail, students were still excitedly finding their commonalities. One blonde girl with glasses cheerfully bounded up to a nearby student organizer saying, "Hi, you're my facebook friend so I just wanted to introduce myself in person."