Rep. Ron Paul rarely makes news, and his candidacy is frequently ignored by Beltway reporters. But headlines, his aides say, are overrated. In fact, the Texas Republican’s low-key autumn was strategic. As Paul’s competitors stumbled and sparred, he amassed a small fortune for his campaign and built a strong ground operation. And with January fast approaching, his team is ready to surprise the political world and sweep the Iowa caucuses.
“This was a movement when he first started running in 2008,” says Trygve Olson, a senior Paul adviser. “Now it’s turned into a highly professionalized campaign, but the energy from that last run is still there, and at the heart of what’s keeping up his momentum.”
The latest polls back up that confidence. In the influential Des Moines Register poll published over the weekend, Paul placed second. Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, captured 25 percent of likely Iowa GOP voters, but Paul garnered 18 percent, two points ahead of Mitt Romney, who in 2008 placed second in the caucuses.
If Paul wins Iowa, the upset could upend what many politicos say is a two-man race between Gingrich and Romney. According to state GOP insiders, a Paul victory is a real possibility. In background conversations, many say Paul is much stronger than outside observers believe, with deep and wide support among a frustrated electorate. With Herman Cain’s departure from the race, operatives see Paul potentially collecting a quarter of caucus attendees.
“Ron Paul is definitely for real out here,” says Tim Albrecht, the communications director for Iowa governor Terry Branstad, who has not endorsed any GOP candidate. “He is going to get 18 percent in the caucuses no matter what. If there’s a snowstorm, he’ll probably win, since he has such dedicated, passionate supporters. The question is whether he can move higher than that.”
Paul, for his part, thinks that he can close in on Gingrich, who has seen a recent bump in both state and national polls. “We’re getting pretty close to it being within the margin of error,” Paul told CNN on Sunday. “I think we continue to do what we’re doing. We’ve had the flavors of the month up and down so far this campaign. I’d like to think of myself as the flavor of the decade.”
Indeed, Paul’s consistency, his strategists say, is integral to his strength, especially in Iowa, where GOP voters have shuffled through an array of favorites. “Iowans, after testing Bachmann, after testing Perry, after testing Cain, and now Gingrich, are realizing that Ron Paul, all along, has been their candidate,” says Fritz Wenzel, Paul’s pollster. Unlike many primary fights, “this is becoming a race about principles,” he says, “and Ron Paul has stood up for true conservative principles for decades, not just in the last month.”
But campaign strategy, of course, has also played a major role in sustaining Paul’s poll numbers. The campaign combines a strong online presence, centered on volunteer organization, with prolific fundraising. Perhaps more important, however, is Paul’s “traditional” strategy in Iowa, which combines a heavy candidate presence with constant mailings and outreach.
“He’s run the most traditional caucus campaign of the year,” Albrecht says. “Multiple mailers, multiple ads, and multiple visits. Rick Perry has run ads, but hasn’t really visited. Mitt Romney has taken the shy approach, and Newt Gingrich hasn’t been here as often.”
“We’re following the traditional model because it works,” says Drew Ivers, the campaign’s Iowa chairman. “This is the fifth time I’ve chaired an Iowa campaign, and in this state, you can’t beat grassroots politics. The caucuses are like a business meeting. You don’t just come and vote; you go to participate. You need committed supporters; we have them.”
Steve Grubbs, who recently worked as Herman Cain’s Iowa director, has seen the enthusiasm for Paul up close. “I was driving down Interstate 80 two weeks ago and saw a hitchhiker carrying a Ron Paul sign. I didn’t pick him up, but I’m sure a Paul supporter gave him a ride,” he says. “I spot them everywhere, wearing their T-shirts and carrying signs.”
You’ll also find thousands of Ron Paul backers on the web — on message boards and on social-networking sites — talking about Paul and his criticism of U.S. foreign policy and the Federal Reserve. As Paul’s team invests in the ground game, it is taking care to intertwine its above-ground legwork with that web world. And it’s paying off, his advisers say, not only through donations, but in building a cohesive network of voters. An early example of its power came in August, when Paul nearly won the Ames straw poll, finishing a close second to Michele Bachmann.
“Ron Paul’s Internet operation is to Republicans in 2012 what Barack Obama’s Internet operation was to Democrats in 2007 and 2008,” Olson says. “It’s very grassroots and national, with thousands of very active supporters who spread the message in every state. That energy is the undercurrent to what’s happening on the ground, where people are going person to person.”
Still, even with the top-tier showing in Iowa polls and recognition by Iowa operatives of their on-the-ground prowess, Paul’s advisers aren’t taking anything for granted. In coming weeks, “Ron Paul is going to be living part-time in Iowa,” says Dimitri Kesari, Paul’s deputy campaign manager. The entire focus will be on coordinating turnout and stoking enthusiasm. Over 500 college students, for example, will move to Iowa over the holidays to participate in an initiative called “Christmas Vacation with Ron Paul.”
“He’s a different kind of candidate,” Kesari acknowledges, a “highly organized outsider.” But in January, he could also be a winner. And Iowans, at least, wouldn’t be surprised.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.