In the early 1960s, as most students at Duke Medical School learned about anatomy, and some of them free love, Ron Paul delved into Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek, reading their paeans to the then-unfashionable free market. By 1971, Paul, who received his M.D. from Duke in 1961, was so drawn to Rand's and Hayek's small-government ideas that he closed his OB/GYN practice in rural South Texas for a day just to drive to Houston and hear a prominent libertarian deliver an economics lecture. Incensed at the decision of President Richard M. Nixon LL.B. '37 to divorce U.S. monetary policy from the gold standard, Paul finally resolved to jump into politics. Although his political views were libertarian, he was attracted to the small-government ideas and political influence of the GOP. In 1976, the young physician entered the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican and quickly gained a reputation as Congress' most quixotic opponent of government power. He voted against so many bills—the invasion of Iraq, the Patriot Act, almost every government tax or budget—that colleagues called him "Dr. No." To libertarians, this made him a hero; to Republicans, a punch line.
Last year, when the seventy-two-year-old Texas Congressman hopped into the race for the Republican presidential nomination, the joke seemed to be on anyone who thought more than a handful of die-hard libertarian ideologues would care. But two months into the race, something changed. It was mid-May, and Paul was at the second Republican presidential debate on the campus of the University of South Carolina, telling an audience of GOP partisans that 9/11 had been caused by America—specifically, its imperialist foreign policy. The audience gasped. Rudy Giuliani butted in, demanding that Paul withdraw the comment. But the Congressman held his ground. "I believe very sincerely that the CIA is correct when they teach and talk about blowback," he said. "[Terrorists] don't come here to attack us because we're rich and we're free. They come, and they attack us because we're over there. I mean, what would we think if other foreign countries were doing that to us?"
Spoken in a different era or by a different candidate, Paul's message might have been forgotten in the crush of the front-runners. Instead, it took the Internet by storm—it was viewed more than a half million times on YouTube—and catapulted Paul's race from a fourth-tier candidacy into the most vibrant online campaign in American history. In the following months, Paul became the most popular candidate on the Net by almost every measure. He garnered more Facebook and MySpace supporters than any other Republican candidate; more Google searches, YouTube subscribers, and website hits than any presidential candidate; and more Meetup.com members than the front-runners of both parties combined. "The campaign calls itself the Ron Paul Revolution," notes Republican Internet consultant David All. "And I don't think that's a far stretch."
Paul's opponents struggled to explain his Internet success. Democrats, who had, until then, comfortably assumed that progressive bloggers, YouTubers, and ex-Deaniacs would give them, and only them, an edge online, chalked it up to the Sanjaya effect: The Web loves weirdoes. And yet Paul was riding more than a spike in curiosity. His 67,000 Meetup members launched more than 1,000 independent campaign groups everywhere from San Francisco to Paducah, holding hundreds of "real-world" events each week, ranging from painting billboards to leafleting gun shows. Paul's November 5 Internet "Money Bomb" event pulled in $4 million from more than 35,000 individual donors, a single-day, online fundraising record in a primary—at least until December, when a second Paul money bomb raised $6 million. Many of these donors and volunteers were people who had never participated in a political campaign or even voted.
In the end, of course, Paul's presidential bid fell short; he never won a state GOP primary or polled better than 6 percent nationally. But his volunteer corps, fundraising, and even his performance at the polls were exponentially better than that of any libertarian-oriented presidential candidate in recent memory. He placed third in New Hampshire, ahead of Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani, and second in Nevada, with 14 percent of the vote. "The single most important event in political libertarianism in the last twenty years is the Ron Paul Revolution," says Michael Munger, a Duke political science professor and Libertarian Party candidate for governor of North Carolina. "There is no doubt about that." The question is whether Paul's campaign marks the end of that revolution or just the beginning.
To gauge whether Paul's campaign will evolve into an enduring movement, it helps to consider the history of another physician: one-time party outsider and Internet sensation Howard Dean. His 2004 presidential campaign flamed out in Iowa after he'd flooded the state with ads and volunteers, in much the same way Paul's campaign failed in New Hampshire. But Dean's supporters, many of them also first-time volunteers, stuck with politics; they went on to become Democratic precinct captains in their local communities, run leading blogs such as DailyKos and MyDD, and occupy high-level positions (often in online organizing) in the offices of almost every major Democratic presidential campaign in 2008. Dean himself became chair of the Democratic National Committee, the embodiment of the party mainstream.
It's hard to see Paul following exactly the same course. "Dean is at core a pragmatist," says Zephyr Rain Teachout A.M. '99, J.D. '99, a visiting assistant professor of law at Duke who was Dean's online campaign director. "That's why he was antiwar—it was pragmatism, it wasn't pacifism. And my sense, although I know it makes Ron Paul supporters angry when I say this, is that Ron Paul is an ideologue. And so those do then attract very different kinds of people."
Paul's uncompromising stances on civil liberties and taxes, his anti-establishment rhetoric, and his knack for co-opting outsiders have deified him among a ragtag group of radicals. They include card-carrying members of the Libertarian Party who reject compromise candidates, conspiracy theorists who deny the media's explanation of everything from 9/11 to Israel, and anarcho-capitalists who oppose the very idea of government.