THE MOST LIBERTARIAN candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, began 2008 with an army of 100,000 enthusiastic donors. Before the primary season began, many of his fans clung to the hope that polls showing Paul stuck in single digits were cooked. Many, more pragmatically, hoped he'd play the kind of role Sen. Eugene McCarthy filled 40 years ago in the Democratic primaries, shaking his party out of its hawkish stupor and relocating its soul.
Neither of those scenarios unfolded. Nowhere was the disappointment greater than in the "Live Free or Die" state of New Hampshire, where the large independent vote and Paul's substantial war chest were primed to shock the political system. Before the election, pollsters such as John Zogby and Scott Rasmussen thought Paul might come in third place. ABC News embedded a reporter with the campaign just to see if lightning might strike, and CNN sent cameras to cover Paul's election night party live.
But Paul finished in a momentum-sapping fifth place, polling worse than he did in Iowa even after spending $3.6 million in the state. Only a second-place showing in Nevada relieved the doldrums of a bleak winter: 6 percent in Michigan, 4 percent in South Carolina, and 3 percent in the make-or-break state of Florida. When the winner-take-all states of Super Tuesday roiled around, Paul placed no better than a second place showing in Montana and media interest in his movement faded away.
The chance of a Paul nomination, never likely to begin with, became mathematically impossible. Once that became clear, interest turned naturally to the members of Paul's decentralized, ad hoc movement--often dubbed the revolution, after a slogan coined by Arizona libertarian Ernie Hancock. The big surprise is how many of his supporters want to scrap parts of Paul's campaign platform. The big question is how many of them will stick around for whatever comes next.
The divisions were already obvious before New Hampshire's crucial primary. Operation Live Free or Die, a grassroots Paul group founded by ex-Google whiz kid Vijay Boyapati, rented 14 friendly homes and opened them up to Paul volunteers to use as a base for door-to-door campaigning. In one house, a snowy 45-minute drive from the campaign headquarters in Concord, Paul workers from all over the country cooked food, drank beer, and talked about libertarian philosophy and economics.
Six nights before the New Hampshire primary, they were flipping...