A note before we begin: Grass-roots supporters of Ron Paul are placing bets on whether the story you're about to read will make them sound like a bunch of wackjobs. Decide for yourself.
Before all the hoopla about Paul's record-setting fund-raising total on Nov. 5, I posted a message at RonPaulForums.com asking to talk to a few supporters about the way organization works within the grass roots. Twenty-seven different people messaged me in response, and all were willing to talk. (I only spoke to a few for this story.)
Adjectives describing Paul's grassroots network have run the gamut. Words like decentralized , fervent , and anarchic have all been used. Paul often says that he didn't choose his supporters—they chose him. He posted this note on his Web site after the so-called "moneybomb":
I say "you raised," because this historic event was created, organized, and run by volunteers. This is the spirit that has protected American freedom in our past; this is the spirit that is doing so again.
But according to supporters I talked to, it's not just the fund-raising effort that was "created, organized, and run by volunteers." It's his entire campaign. To hear them tell it, Ron Paul is not actually in control of his presidential run. Neither is Jesse Benton, Paul's national spokesman, nor his campaign manager, Lew Moore. They're just the "official campaign," according to one supporter. The grass roots, he said, are the "real campaign."
Headquarters and the "real campaign" don't communicate all that much. Ron Paul supporters make their own signs, fliers, and banners, instead of using official campaign literature. They sponsor fund-raising drives within their own networks to take out their own ads in newspapers. In other words, money is being raised for Paul behind Paul's back. The ideas are concocted, nurtured, and executed within the grass-roots community.
Take the "moneybomb," for example. To garner press coverage, a supporter named Trevor Lyman had the idea to synchronize fundraising on Nov. 5 and proposed it on a Ron Paul forum. The community helped make it happen, which led to 4.2 million dollars and dozens of headlines.
There's obviously a danger here. The two campaigns don't always agree. Jesse Benton, Paul's spokesman, told me that having such active supporters is great 95 percent of the time, but every now and then, the grass roots cause some problems. Paul's fans, after all, include 9/11 conspiracy theorists and white supremacists . (Then again, so do most candidates' fan bases.) But the controversial supporters come lumped in with the outspoken, organized, and Internet-savvy ones. Unique to the Paul campaign is that his fans not only have a forum-they have sway.
Case in point: This weekend's rally in Philadelphia . The Philadelphia meetup group (Paul's supporters often organize themselves via these Internet-mediated networks) won the official campaign's fund-raising competition and was awarded "a visit from Dr. Paul." The meetup group booked space on Independence Mall in downtown Philadelphia.
But then the "official campaign" got involved. After costs for the event skyrocketed to six figures, Ron Paul headquarters moved the rally to Valley Forge, Pa., 25 miles outside of Philly. People in the grass-roots campaign were pissed, so they lobbied Paul's headquarters to move the rally back. Moreover, they sought out fresh quotes from independent contractors to bring the price down. Eventually, the grass roots won out: The rally will be in Philadelphia.
The tension can only increase as Paul gains more traction with voters and pollsters. Some community members sense this tipping point and are urging restraint. One supporter writes :
Now that Dr. Paul has more attention from the MSM, we have to take extra precaution to ensure that we are being as tactful as humanly possible. We cannot afford to give the MSM or any of Dr. Paul's opponents ammo. This means taking the extra steps to avoid controversy in everything we do.
But trying to prevent controversy could neuter both the "official" and "real" campaign's most attractive talking point: the freedom of the individual. The supporters I spoke to all thought the real campaign's modus operandi dovetails nicely with the principles Paul espouses on the campaign trail. If those principles are left behind because supporters are afraid of people like me showing up in their forums, then Paul and his supporters may lose their sense of personal liberty. At that point, the real campaign might start acting like an official campaign.