I get to Ron Paul's headquarters in Des Moines just as an army of student volunteers is surging out of the doors, yelling and clutching signs. "This is the herd we can't contain!" one staffer laughs. ABC's Jake Tapper is taping a live segment in front of Mike Huckabee's neighboring headquarters, and it's time to make some mischief. The volunteers conform to a Washington reporter's expectations about Ron Paul youth--almost all boys, rowdy, eager to disrupt--until they don't.
The ABC guys are clearly charmed by the volunteers' enthusiasm, but they're also worried the kids will mess up the sound for the shot. As soon as the thirty or so volunteers figure this out, they politely troop back across Locust Street, gather in a neat clump on the corner, and fall silent. When Paul fans driving by honk at the crowd, this doesn't elicit a single happy "Woo!" from the now eerily well-behaved volunteers while the cameras are rolling. "McCain wants Huckabee to beat Romney, Huckabee wants McCain to beat Romney ... David?" Tapper is saying into the lens. Behind him, dozens of Ron Paul signs bob furiously and silently, giving the scene from the camera's perspective a ridiculous quality; I imagine it's something like watching a naval reporter talk about the positioning of two warships off-screen while, in the water behind him, dozens of frantic but polite shipwreck victims try to get the world's attention without shouting.
These volunteers' whole idea is to get the world's attention without shouting. They're the closest thing this race has to the Deaniacs of '04: Hundreds of young volunteers, who have traveled to Iowa on their own dime to knock on doors and make pleading phone calls. But where the Deaniacs got a reputation for being revved-up and angry, the Paul guys are pacific. At Paul's headquarters, they hesitate to bash other candidates, even when I goad them. They are unfailingly courteous, holding doors and always referring to their candidate as "Dr. Paul." They pepper me with curious questions. ("Are the police in Washington D.C. under federal or local authority?") After the taping, when the ABC cameraman observes to nobody in particular that "they remind me of Howard Dean's people," several of the volunteers urge him, "Don't say that!" as much to dissociate themselves from the Dean people's wildness as from Dean himself. "I know you meant it as a compliment," one especially young-looking volunteer in a pageboy cap reassures the cameraman, gently.
Paul's youth volunteer project, called "Ron Paul's Christmas Vacation" to entice students, was the brainchild of National Youth Coordinator Jeff Frazee, a low-key, twenty-four year old Texas A&M grad whose swept blond hairdo makes him look more likely to pull out a skateboard than your typical campaign functionary. After getting themselves to Iowa, the students are given free bunks in one of seven camps spread over the state--the Boone location, at a YMCA camp near Des Moines, has 70 Paulites; the Floyd camp, in the north, has 25; Cedar Rapids, 50; etc--as well as cereal breakfasts, a $50 American Express debit card to buy lunches, and simple dinner catered by the Hy-Vee supermarket.
The volunteers posted at the Boone camp are the elect. They get to ride to and from camp in a red school bus called the "Constitution Coach," whose donor, a die-hard supporter, pre-decorated the sides with what look like the lyrics to a minstrel ballad to Ron Paul: "He is called Dr. No ... No U.N. No ICC." A special mix CD plays on the bus, with Ron Paul country, Ron Paul rap, even a take-off of Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" called "Ron Paul, Ron Paul." "Some of it is dumb, but the rap is the best," says Brittney Lowry, an accounting major from the University of Houston whose trip out here with her new husband, Adam Weibling, constitutes "kind of a honeymoon."
I follow the Constitution Coach out to the Boone camp for purposes of seeing what the Ron Paul youth are like when they're not putting on a show for Jake Tapper. I don't know what I was expecting. Or I do, but I'm embarrassed to say it now that I saw the reality of the Ron Paul youth camps. Let's just say that alcohol and all controlled substances are strictly prohibited for the entirety of Ron Paul's Christmas Vacation. "I tell them the party is January 3," says Frazee. To amuse themselves after an evening of phone-banking, they play Scrabble and Yahtzee.
Working the phones, the Boone volunteers have been assigned a list of independents. This means people who can be marked down as "YCs"--"Yes Caucus"--are few and far between, but they don't seem at all worried or discouraged. Obama supporters are the easiest to "convert," they report. They're especially proud of the "mobile phone bank" they're using, a fleet of 225 go-phones purchased for the amazing deal of $50 each, 1,000 free minutes included. Despite Paul's sudden richesse--he's expected to have raised the most money of any GOP candidate in the fourth quarter--deals are very important to the Paul guys. Somebody at the camp calculated that riding the Constitution Coach rather than in cars is saving them $4,000 in gas. "Ron Paul runs his campaign like he might run his administration," an Arkansan named Nickel, who drives the coach, explains.
Actually, if the candidates were judged by the quality of their young supporters, I would now be voting for Ron Paul. Beyond just being polite, the Paul volunteers have an incredible passion for the technical mechanics of the American constitution and body of laws. As I spend time with them, I start to think: I wouldn't want a repairman working on my car who didn't know how it was put together, so why not the same with people who work on my government? (Assuming, that is, that the Paul adults mirror the Paul youth.)
Also, scrambling my assumption that his volunteers would all be computer geeks, most are history or economics majors. One kid, whose computer has apparently broken, walks through the room yelling, "Is anybody a computer science person here?" Nobody speaks up. Not that they're not geeks. Take this one typical conversation from my night at the Boone camp:
MATTHEW TREVATHAN, WITTENBERG UNIVERSITY, HISTORY MAJOR: McCain's comment about [how Paul's brand of isolationism got us into] World War II set me off! I think I'm going to write my senior thesis about it. Nobody understands why we got into World War II.
DAN SELSAM, WESLEYAN, HISTORY MAJOR: I want to write my thesis on Dr. Paul, too.
JOE HILLS, VANDERBILT, AMERICAN HISTORY MAJOR: I feel like it's because nobody understands World War I properly. I want to write a serious graphic history of World War I.
ELI SENTMAN, HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT: I would buy that.
BRITTNEY LOWERY, UNIVERSITY OF HOUSTON, ACCOUNTING MAJOR [INTERRUPTING]: Hey guys, it's gone up to 18,983,543 and 66 cents!
"It" is Ron Paul's astonishing fourth-quarter fundraising total. The number updates automatically. When I first got to the camp, I thought everybody was following sports scores on their laptops. They were actually watching the fundraising number reload.
There's something that seems a little tragic about the Paul volunteers' devotion--they're spending their Christmas vacation in chilly cabins, eating Velveeta potatoes for a week, and their candidate doesn't arrive in Iowa until the day before the caucus--until I see that it's not really about Paul. They almost never mention his biography or his leadership style when talking about their movement, a startling contrast with rival campaigns like Huckabee's or Obama's. I ask Eli, the student who would have bought Joe's graphic history of World War I, whether he thinks Ron Paul has charisma. Eli pauses. "He's so nice," he replies. "He reminds me of your grandpa--your righteous grandpa." A volunteer named Eddie in a tidy checked Oxford shirt says, "He did a rally with us the first night and shook everybody's hand. It was cute."
"I like his aloofness, to be honest," observes Matthew, the World War II buff.
It's not about personality worship for the volunteers, the fetishization of a person's capacity to shine in public or persuade. It's about questions like the purpose of our Federal Reserve, which really piques these volunteers' interest, and which just so happens to get a Texas congressman named Ron Paul going, too. When Nickel muses, "I think centrists are the most extremist, because they don't believe in anything but people," it suddenly seems to make a lot of sense.
In the hands of the volunteers, I'm becoming a Ron Paul convert, and I have to get out. On the way to my car, I take a peek into one of the cabins. There are 17 bunks crammed on the lower floor, boys' stuff scattered everywhere. Posted on the door is the only sign of raucousness I've seen the whole night: a Hillary brochure with little Hitler mustaches doodled onto her pictures. As I examine it, a burst of laughter comes from the cabin's second level. Suddenly it occurs to me: Did I get stuck with the earnest ones over in the main hall, and this is where the wild, blow-up-the-establishment Ron Paul people are?
A few people are shouting at once, and I can't make out what they're talking about. Girls? Nasty gossip about Mitt Romney? Then a phrase rises above the jumble. "That's why the French had mercenaries!"
They're debating the comparative merits of how governments throughout history have spent their revenue.
Eve Fairbanks is an associate editor for The New Republic.