I've been on the road here in Iowa, covering the caucus and the aftermath of the close-number-three outcome in the Ron Paul world, for an upcoming feature article in the April print issue of Reason.
Herewith, a free-range gambol through some things I've learned or seen here, on the ground, in Iowa. (The ground here is cold, in case you were wondering the real truth about being on the ground in Iowa.)
The Paul campaign, as the media has noted, is pretty tight-lipped; I was told that "message discipline" in a campaign is of great importance to them, so the people officially authorized to speak on the campaign are limited in number and often hard to reach in a hurry. But I've gotten some on-the-record comment and a much larger store of background or not-for-attribution stuff from wandering around the speeches, caucuses, and parties of the Ron Paul world this week.
The most important thing for Paul fans to know is: coming in third with over 26,000 votes fully matched if not exceeded the campaign's hopes and expectations. Even if you are bummed that he didn't win, the campaign is not. Some in the Paul community are even pretty sure that not coming in first will be better for Paul for the long haul than coming in first would have been. (For general reasons of "less of a target for opponents and media.") (See Iowa's 7 Positives for Ron Paul)
During the brief holiday period of Paul's frontrunner-hood last month, that attention didn't feel good to the campaign in many ways. But there is no objective sign that he was particularly damaged by any of that yesterday. Paul's 21.4 percent came in pretty much exactly as he'd been polling for the ten days prior. Paul didn't fail to win yesterday because his percentage shrank; he didn't win because his opponents' percentages grew.
Rick Santorum is one who grew, and grew, and grew, to everyone's surprise. (See OH NO! TMZ Just Spotted Rick Santorum Trying to Visit Every Town in America!) There is some chance that part of that surprise Santorum growth can be credited to the Paul-centered brouhaha when Bachmann's state chair Kent Sorenson, a state senator who had long been in the Paul orbit (Paul had done a fundraiser for him back in 2009), quit Bachmann's team and endorsed Paul.
Bachmann accused Sorenson of having been paid off by the Paul campaign. She provided no proof, the Paul campaign and Paul himself denied it, and I didn't meet any Iowan who seemed to genuinely believe it. Another Bachmann aide denied it publicly and probably got fired for contradicting his boss. (More interesting unsubstantiated rumor, based on the Paul fundraiser in 2009: that Sorenson was a Paul mole all along!) More than one Iowa native (one of whom noted that, perhaps to their detriment, most of the people running the show for Paul here day-to-day were not Iowans) told me that that sort of thing just reads distastefully to many locals. One Paul precinct captain just told me, unbidden, that he didn't like that sort of thing; it just isn't done, and it was the only expression of distaste with anything surrounding Paul I heard from his lips.
Another Iowan said at the very least it might have been better if Sorenson's quitting Bachmann and endorsing Paul had a couple of days between them to avoid the old appearance of impropriety. I meet a lot of Paul fans, both here and around the country, who like to believe their guy is above purely political machinations; lots of people working for him understandably believe political machinations are one of the things that make political campaigns work.
Doubtless the specifics of this "staffer leaves one candidate and endorses another" story is a pretty in-the-weeds thing that most caucus-goers didn't obsess about much. Still, it added to the general aura of a deflating Bachmann and may well have led many people who would have been Bachmann voters to become Santorum ones. Had the split of that evangelical values voter audience been more even between Michele and Rick, Paul would likely have been a close second.
Everyone I talked to was impressed with what the Paul machine achieved in Iowa, working hard for what they got with likely over a million in ads over the campaign, dozens of paid staffers, many hundreds of out of state youthful troops working brutal 10 hour or more shifts everyday and stored away at a YMCA camp, doing advance work for Paul's many appearances, working the phones (ferociously; everyone in the Paul campaign's lists seemed to be getting multiple calls a day), doing some door-to-door stuff (and keeping their eyes on the local Occupiers to make sure they didn't come back to disrupt the office, as they did once.)
The good old fashioned traveling Paul grassroots warriors, like "End the Fed" movement founder Steven Vincent from Los Angeles, hit the ground here to do the sort of public rallying--pub "crawls for Paul," sign waves--that the grassroots loves, even as the campaign would rather they all just be phone banking. The Paul energy is "different" this time around, Vincent says; "it's not as much stuff like sign waving and rallying and public outward activity. It seems more online and more phone calling and things like that, and fundraising. It is not as raucous." The days of the "Ron Paul Revolution" banners hanging everywhere, as another activist lamented, seem to be over.
Still, Vincent is sure that the Paul energy remains deep and spreading; he's a yoga coach himself and wandered into an Iowa yoga class out of the blue, and ran into three random Paul voters there when he explained what brought him to Iowa. "One man, 68 years old, told me that he understands it is time for real, real change, serious change, and this Ron Paul seems like the guy who's gonna do it," Vincent says.
Could more have been done to get Paul closer to number one? I heard a few bits of Wednesday-morning-quarterbacking that seemed to have some merit. At the caucus itself, lots of people come in undecided, so a concerted effort at making sure good, sharp Paul spokespeople were at as many caucus locations as possible might have paid off. That speechifying effort was laid on local precinct captains (who were provided with suggested talking points) and may not, from some accounts, have been done very effectively across the over a thousand different caucus meetings.
One Iowan actually suggests that the phone banking--which was key to how Rand Paul, from whose winning campaign many Ron Paul higher-ups come, won in Kentucky in 2010, and thus considered pretty much the alpha and omega of how to win a campaign in the Paul operation--may have been overdone. He told me he knows of at least a handful of Iowans who found it annoyingly overbearing and led them to decide not to caucus for Paul, and from what he knows of the Iowan mentality he suspects there might have been others similarly discomfited. (Another un-Iowa touch I heard locals complain about: the official Ankeny HQ started locking its doors during office hours. Bad form for someone eagerly showing up, often after driving many hours, to pick up signs or volunteer to run into a locked door. "No one in Iowa locks doors," I was told, though I admit when I'm in a hotel here, I do lock my door. But I'm an out-of-towner.)
And never forget that no matter how good a job the campaign did at message-spreading and getting out their base, Paul has a problem with lots of voters (one I find Paul mavens surprisingly unwilling to admit): they just don't actually agree with most or all of his beliefs. In that regard, given that Paul's most vivid and forceful departure from conservative and Republican orthodoxy is in foreign policy, the noises round the globe hyping up possible war with Iran probably worked against Paul's interests here in Iowa. Ominous splashes from the Straits of Hormuz may have poured cold water on Paul's chances, to indulge a perfectly dreadful metaphor. (See Ron Paul Could Get 34% of Vote in New Hampshire)
A.J. Spiker, a member of the Iowa Republican Party Central Committee, was state co-chair for the Paul campaign. He thinks having Paul on the ground in Iowa so often was key to their success. "Dr. Paul connects well with people when he gets the opportunity to speak to people and answer their questions in a town hall format," Spiker says. "People receive his answers a lot better than in 30 second debate rebuttals. When Dr. Paul has the opportunity to really answer questions, lots of Iowans recognize a good answer, especially on foreign policy." Spiker notes that Paul people are working the party apparatus more and more, seeking and gaining positions of influence in local parties and helping cement Paul as the leader for the constitutionalist conservative wing of the GOP. Paul forces did well in winning county delegate seats yesterday, Spiker thinks, though he doesn't have hard numbers. He also stresses, despite things you may read, that what happened yesterday has no necessary connection at all to how Iowa's delegates are eventually apportioned after they come out the wringer of county-to-state-to-national.
But what's most important is that what happened yesterday has the Paul campaign coming out of Iowa where they needed to be: healthy, energized, still "top tier," clearly the candidate of the young; appealing more to the independents who might actually help the Republicans beat Obama than any of his opponents; copping earned media about what a beloved doctor their candidate is; getting public love from rock n' rollers very old (Joe Perry) and slightly less old (Jonny H. of Social Distortion; my band opened for them back in 1988, the year of Paul's first presidential run--coincidence? Assuredly so, especially given that H. wasn't even in the band yet then); and thinking ahead--for example, launching anti-abortion ads in South Carolina where the old evangelical values voters will likely be vital.
Most importantly and immediately, Paul's team is already focusing on that old ground game in New Hampshire, where a strong second place to Romney is being fought for with the same vigor that made Paul the only force in the GOP that more than doubled its apparent appeal since 2008 yesterday in Iowa. Whether fully thrilled about the Iowa operation or having some misgivings, all in the Paul campaign and volunteer camps seem to agree that his supporters and his ideas are more firmly entrenched in American politics today than they were two days ago.