On this Monday night, there is already a long line of people winding down an East Village street waiting to be admitted into Webster Hall, which brands itself as “NYC’s largest and longest running nightclub” and boasts that it has hosted Green Day, Prince, and Mick Jagger. There are college students drinking Four Loko out of a plastic water bottle; everyone is carded at the door; the bar in the middle of the venue is hopping; and when I identify myself as a reporter, an event organizer hands me a voucher for a free cocktail.
But this isn’t a concert. This is an event featuring a keynote speech by GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul.
Paul’s acolytes have argued that he attracts young voters in a way that other GOP candidates don’t, and a quick survey of the crowd gathered in the deliberately dimmed room proves that it skews more hipster than hip-replacement. I saw college students waiting in line dressed in T-shirts, one calling for the Fed to be audited, another urging the Ron Paul revolution to begin, and a third featuring an iconic image of Paul riffing off of the Barack Obama “Hope” graphic. “I’m a Ron Paul fan for many, many reasons,” says Lucas Espinoza, there with a friend and his brother, Max, who is celebrating his 18th birthday. “The first one being he’s anti-war. I voted for Obama in 2008, and I heavily regret it now.” He also strongly supports Paul’s foreign-policy and Federal Reserve views.
The vibe of the approximately 1,900 people packed into the hall is a mix of idealism and rebelliousness against the establishment, an atmosphere that feels more Woodstock than Tea Party. (I see only one tricorn hat, worn by a man in a T-shirt.) A banner reading “Imagine Ron Paul 2012” hangs down from one side of the balcony; it is written in graffiti lettering with the “0” in 2012 in the shape of a peace sign. “Ron Paul always says the revolution needs to have music,” announces Jack Hunter, the columnist and commentator who is emceeing the event, and so singer-guitarist Jordan Page ambles onstage. Page, before singing, talks briefly about the advice he gives to discouraged supporters he encounters. “There’s a hell of a lot you can do by yourself,” he says he tells them. “As soon as you open your mouth and speak the truth, you change the world for someone.”
There are more signs that this is not your typical GOP event. Some of the people I speak to have one back-up choice for the presidency if Paul doesn’t win the GOP nomination: Gary Johnson. Others are unsure they would even vote. “The only person that I see that could help us at all is Ron Paul,” says Amanda Frey, a New York City musician and dog-walker, who has no idea if she would vote for Obama or the GOP candidate if Paul isn’t nominated. Greg Filipovich, a property manager from Brooklyn, echoes Frey’s language: “I have no idea,” he says of who he would vote for. “He’s the only hope, honestly.” Frank Zvovushe, a software developer from Connecticut, says he might write in Paul’s name in the general election, or back the libertarian candidate. Or he might vote for “Sarah Palin, reluctantly,” because he’s not 100 percent confident she is as anti-big-government as she says she is.
At one point, a speaker tears into the media — which seems GOP-typical, until it becomes clear that the rant is not about how the media covers Paul, but that they do not cover him sufficiently. But when I later talk to the media coordinator, she assures me that all the major networks covered the event, noting specifically that CBS, CNN, and Fox were there. At another point, Ronald Reagan is mentioned by a speaker, who says she voted for him. A few people cheer. A few others boo. Most of the room is silent, indifferent to the president considered one of the greats by most Republicans today.
Paul is a rock star here. When he appears before delivering his speech from the balcony that wraps around three of the four walls, the crowd erupts into a raucous cheer and hundreds of upturned faces gaze in admiration at the man decades older than almost all of them. At one point in his speech, he asks, “Are there any CIA agents in this room? FBI? Or TSA?” The audience boos loudly. “Good, we’re okay,” Paul says jokingly, before delivering a speech centered on his usual themes: U.S. intervention in foreign countries, the Federal Reserve, and the need for individual liberty. He is interrupted again and again by cheers.
But it is not New York City–area denizens who determine the GOP nomination, and the East Village is a long ways from Iowa. Is there any reason to believe this election cycle is the time Paul could catapult into winning the GOP nomination?
“The argument that you should pay more attention to him is that he is number two in fundraising, has been since last report,” Paul spokesman Gary Howard tells me in a room adjoining the main hall, whose walls fail to block out the thunderous “End the Fed” chant going on. “If you look at most of the polls, he’s gone from about 8 or 9 [percent support] to about 14, 15 — so he’s solidly in third place.” According to the RealClearPolitics poll average, Paul is currently in third place, but is averaging about 7.7 percent support (he did reach 13 percent in the USA Today/Gallup poll conducted mid-September).
But Howard has other reasons this is not a repeat of Paul’s 2008 run.
“He was running, a congressman nobody had heard of him before — and all of a sudden, there was sort of an explosion where he got really popular,” Howard says. “The campaign infrastructure at the time wasn’t ready for it. They were a small campaign. They weren’t prepared for the amount of support, the amount of money, and all of those things. This time around, we’re a lot more prepared, have a lot more professionals on board, a lot more people, a lot more organization ahead of time. We’re doing million-dollar moneybombs every month at least, preparing to fight with everybody else, to fight with the top tier.”
The Paul campaign also thinks the country has shifted ideologically since 2008, thanks to the housing crisis, the failed stimulus, and the Tea Party. “Every [Republican] candidate on stage is agreeing with him,” Howard says of Paul’s push to audit the Federal Reserve and balance the budget. “They’re not only agreeing with him. They’re talking like it’s their policy.”
Another reason the campaign cites for why Paul should be viewed as a serious candidate is the intensity of his supporters.
“As you can see from the crowds here — I mean, this is New York — he’s got a whole lot of enthusiasm behind him,” Howard observes. “He’s got a solid base of enthusiastic supporters.”
“This country is ripe for a revolution,” Paul told the crowd in his speech. Taping an interview with The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart a few hours before the Webster Hall function, Paul said, “I believe we are on an explosion of interest.” One speaker optimistically noted that the initials of Webster Hall were W.H.: the same as White House.
“I don’t support him because he’s a Republican or a Democrat. I support him because of what he actually talks about,” Lucas Espinoza says. But if the nation is ripe for a revolution, there is little sign that it’s the Ron Paul revolution that we’re all waiting for.
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.