Where are all the Ron 'Paulite' libertarians in 2016?


Last month, Walter Block, a libertarian professor of economics and long-time acolyte of Ron Paul, pinched his nose and co-launched a group, Libertarians for Trump.

That would be Donald Trump — the red-tailed hawk of border security, defender of entitlements and opponent of free-trade. Not exactly a disciple of Ayn Rand, the novelist famous for "Atlas Shrugged" who has inspired many libertarians. Block's group, he freely admits, is a strenuous exercise of realpolitik — the ultimate lesser-of-evils decision. While he finds much of Trump's domestic agenda odious, Block very much likes Trump's noninterventionist foreign policy positions.

Still, Block insists his group, which he says had garnered several thousand signatories, is narrowly focused. It advocates only for Trump as the Republican nominee, and it intends to promptly disband after the primary. Then, Block said, even his vote is up for grabs. "If it was Bernie [Sanders] versus Donald, I would vote for the Libertarian [Party candidate] for sure," he told CNBC.com. "If it was Donald versus Hillary [Clinton], I would have a much harder time." In this scenario, Block said, he would have "trouble deciding" between Trump and a Libertarian.

His conundrum is not unique among his kind. Four years after its political awakening, and in the absence of an obvious rallying point, the Ron Paul coalition finds itself in a diffuse, conflicted and confused diaspora.

Ron Paul supporters holler during the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida.
Lucian Perkins | The Washington Post | Getty Images

Paul's devotees — the so-named Paulites — are now erratically strewn across the political spectrum of the 2016 election, at once attaching themselves to Trump's populism, Ted Cruz's conservatism and even Sanders' socialism. Still many others who found their political voice in the utterances of Paul, a white-haired obstetrician-turned-congressman, are trying to find a place to land.

"For people who got frustrated after 2012 and [have] now left the liberty movement and activism altogether, you have to keep in mind: this is a long game," said Norm Singleton, a longtime Paul staffer who now runs Campaign for Liberty, the ex-congressman's grassroots nonprofit. "Dr. Paul was speaking out for liberty going back as far as 1971."

For those seeking guidance on this presidential race, the octogenarian has provided scant direction. In numerous op-eds and cable news appearances, Paul has largely expressed just how displeased he is with the current offerings, chastising Cruz for being "owned by Goldman Sachs" and Trump for having "zero" solutions to offer. (Paul declined to speak to CNBC.com for this story, citing a busy schedule this week.)

Paul's friends have learned better than trying to persuade him to pick the lesser of evils. Block recounts his tireless but fruitless efforts trying to persuade Paul to jump aboard the Trump Train.

"I keep saying, suppose I have a gun to your head, who would you pick? And I still don't get an answer out of him," Block said. "He hates them all, but that's not good enough."

The current state of the Paul coalition ratifies a general truism about political movements, particularly insurgent ones: They tend to go adrift without a charismatic leader at the helm. It also suggests something specific about the Paul coalition that surprised the 2012 race: its support had much more to do with Paul's outsiderism, than his libertarianism.

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It is this reality that dawned too late on on the presidential campaign of his son, Kentucky U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, who thought he could expand on his father's base of support by appealing to establishment Republicans as well as true libertarians.

Steve Grubbs, Rand Paul's chief Iowa campaign strategist, said the campaign's internal polls found that of Iowa voters who said they supported Ron Paul in 2012, only about a third identified generally as having libertarian leanings.

"Two-thirds were voting for the candidate most likely to disrupt Washington," Grubbs told CNBC.com. "And that was the challenge we really had with Rand: everybody thought the Ron Paul coalition was going to fall behind him, but only a third ultimately would."

Iowa was where the Ron Paul phenomenon took hold in 2012. After placing a competitive third, he eventually wound up with 22 out of the state's 28 delegates. The liberty movement took over the Iowa state Republican party with A.J. Spiker, the co-chair of Paul's campaign, becoming chairman of the Iowa GOP. But two years later, in 2014, Striker and other Paul-friendly officials were deposed by the establishment and replaced by officials loyal to the governor, Terry Branstad.

We pushed that pendulum way, way, way out there. ... The law of physics mandates that the pendulum is going to swing back.
David Fischer
Iowa co-chair for both Rand and Ron Paul campaigns

"We pushed that pendulum way, way, way out there," said David Fischer, who served as Iowa co-chair for both Paul campaigns and later as a top official with the Iowa GOP. "The law of physics mandates that the pendulum is going to swing back."

That was hastened by a series of indictments against several top Ron Paul staffers, including campaign manager John Tate and chairman Jesse Benton, who were charged with trying to bribe an an Iowa state senator for an endorsement. Both Benton and Tate were eventually cleared of charges last fall, and Benton went on on to serve as the top strategist for a pro-Rand Paul super PAC this cycle.

With Rand Paul out of the race, Benton last month became an advisor to the pro-Trump Great America PAC, joining Paul's former finance chairman, Eric Beach.

In an interview with CNBC.com, Benton said that Trump's noninterventionism appealed to him from the start, but he was ultimately persuaded to join the pro-Trump super PAC after a late February lunch with billionaire investor Andrew Beal, a former Paul donor who has since endorsed the Manhattan mogul.

Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul campaign for their candidate February 1, 2016 in Des Moines, Iowa.
Getty Images

"I think Trump is the only legitimate outsider," Benton said. He said that Ron Paul never tried to dissuade him from supporting Trump, but added that he had no hope of bringing his former mentor along for the ride.

"Ron is not going to get there," Benton said. "Ron is a 100 percent purist and he doesn't want to compromise one single bit of principle. And that's OK."

In addition to peddling a home-schooling curriculum, and doing commercials for a checkered investment research firm, Paul commits his time to leading the Campaign for Liberty and the Ron Paul Institute, a foreign policy nonprofit.

But perhaps Paul's greatest political legacy is Young Americans for Liberty, a libertarian student organization that Paul is not formally affiliated with, but which grew out of his 2008 presidential campaign. It currently counts 600 college chapters and 200,000-plus members.

Author and commentator Doug Wead, who served as a senior strategist to Paul's 2012 campaign, told CNBC.com: "The kids all want to cause mischief and stir up things. ... He is more patient, he's got time, he understands this may not be resolved in his lifetime, but that has been his strength all along."

Cruz, despite Paul's withering criticisms, has arguably made the most consistent effort to attract his former supporters, even name-checking libertarians in his Iowa Caucus victory speech.

Prior to Rand Paul dropping out of the race, Cruz had already snatched the support of Iowa state Sen. Jason Schultz, who endorsed Ron Paul in 2012, and Joel Kurtinitis, an activist who served as Paul's regional director. Cruz also won the endorsement of former Libertarian Party presidential candidate Bob Barr, who has gotten crosswise with Paul in the past.

Ultimately, former Paul staffers say, the movement and the coalition has to extend beyond individual presidential cycles to flourish.

"If it was confined to political circles it was doomed to failure," said Fischer.

But at least one political organization sees a unique opportunity this election — the national Libertarian Party.

This is a year where things are so uncertain, and where the two parties are split among themselves, that it could be a very big opportunity.
Wes Benedict
Libertarian Party executive director
Rand Paul
Getty Images

"This is a year where things are so uncertain, and where the two parties are split among themselves, that it could be a very big opportunity," said Wes Benedict, the Libertarian Party's executive director. Past nominee Gary Johnson's 1,275,871 votes in 2012 represented a high-water mark for the party in its 44-year history.

The party sees encouraging indicators heading into November: A Monmouth University poll commissioned last month found that Johnson, again the LP's putative front-runner this cycle, received 11 percent of the vote in a hypothetical three-way race with Trump and Clinton.

During the 2013 Virginia gubernatorial race, Libertarian Party candidate Robert Sarvis ended with almost 7 percent of the vote, the most a third-party candidate has netted in the South since 1970.

Immediately after Rand Paul's exit from this year's nominating contest, the Libertarian Party saw notable spikes in new donors, according to figures provided to CNBC.com. The party is on the ballot in 32 states (and Washington, D.C.) — the most of any third-party — and Benedict says he's confident it will be on all states' ballots for November.

Benedict said that while Ron and Rand Paul have "branded" libertarianism as more harmonious with the GOP, he hopes that the Libertarian Party will maintain an equidistance between the two major parties. "We need to strongly appeal to Bernie Sanders voters if we want to get a lot of support," he said.

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Johnson's greatest challenge for the LP nomination appears to come from two businessmen: Austin Petersen, the CEO of a photo and video consulting firm; and John McAfee, the voyaging antivirus software magnate. Petersen has already rankled Paul supporters by pillorying Paul over his stated skepticism about the official account of the Malaysian Airlines flight that crashed in Ukraine two summers ago.

Whether any of them can rally support from the less libertarian parts of the Paul coalition remain to be seen.

"Movements need strong, charismatic leaders, that is the nature of not just American politics but movements around the world," said Grubbs. "Very few movements are able to rise without [a] strong charismatic leader and that is what is lacking at this point, whether we are talking about state level or national level."

UPDATED: This story was updated to clarify a quote from Walter Block on decided between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.