Image: Ron Paul sign
Charlie Neibergall  /  AP
A supporter holds a sign as Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, speaks during a news conference Tuesday, April 26, 2011, in Des Moines, Iowa.
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updated 6/1/2011 1:25:17 PM ET 2011-06-01T17:25:17

Libertarian hero Ron Paul stands to benefit from a little-known phenomenon stirring in New Hampshire: Fans of hands-off government are migrating en masse to the state where license plates boast the motto “Live Free or Die”—and where, coincidentally, the presidential primary season kicks off.

The “Free State Project,” as it’s called, makes a strong case against conspiracy theorists who are eager to point out that Paul supporters are “stacking” the critical voting state. But for a campaign notorious for loading any event featuring a presidential straw poll, will the advantage invite political scrutiny?

“That would be pretty easy to disprove,” said Sovereign Curtis, Free State Project participant and organizer of the group’s signature Porcupine Festival. “We predate Ron Paul’s run for president. And either way, it’s not like we’re a secret pact for him; he just happens to have a philosophy that a lot of us agree with.”

Indeed—then-Yale student Jason Sorens hatched the idea for the project nearly 10 years ago, before Paul, a Republican congressman from Texas, had thought about plunging into 2008 and 2012 presidential waters.

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While researching his doctoral dissertation examining secession parties in advanced democracies, Sorens couldn’t ignore a striking trend: Globally, democracies were decentralizing, putting power increasingly in the hands of regional governments. “It occurred to me that, in the United States, libertarians have very little influence at the federal level, and if state governments are meant to grow in importance, we could maximize our influence by trying to focus on a single state where we could move and start to impact the political system,” he said.

Today, nearly 1,000 Americans have moved to New Hampshire, and almost 10,000 more have pledged to do so within the next five years. If the movement succeeds, 20,000 people will soon be living in a Granite State community focused on libertarian, small-government principles.

Video: Paul on Federal Reserve, 2012 (on this page)

For Paul, though, it’s not just a convenient support base, evocative of past schemes—think CPAC 2011, when supporters would be bussed into large-scale events in an effort to skew presidential straw polls in his favor. Several “free staters,” as they call themselves, enjoyed staffers’ salaries at Paul's New Hampshire headquarters in 2008: Brinck Slattery was a field coordinator; Kate Rick was the state communications director; Trevor Lyman, who helps build publicity for the Free State Project, was the architect of Ron Paul’s signature campaign “money bomb.” Jesse Benton, Paul’s political director, said he wouldn’t be surprised to see a similar overlap in 2012.

It’s good news for Paul, who in 2008 ambled to a mere fifth place in the New Hampshire GOP primary after he opted not to reprise his 1988 presidential bid, which earned him less than 1 percent of the popular vote as the Libertarian Party nominee. This time around, Benton said, the campaign “absolutely” expects to do better.

“I’d say if he decides to get into this election, he’d be a contender to win New Hampshire,” Benton continued, citing a recent Suffolk University poll in which Paul tied for second among possible GOP contenders behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. “New Hampshire, which has long upheld the traditions of limited government, would be a substantial priority in deciding where we’ll be investing our time and resources.”

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Benton said the relationship between Paul and the Free State Project is one of “respect,” and that the campaign would be open to teaming up with the group for fundraisers and events. And Paul himself hasn’t been coy about the alliance: In 2007, he openly endorsed the project. But if free staters were already at it in 2008, what’s to say this cycle will be any better?

Interest in the movement came “very, very slowly at first,” Sorens said. Word got out when he, acting on a hunch, followed up his dissertation research with an essay in The Libertarian Enterprise. Then, in a 2003 online vote among the project's 5,000 supporters, 58 percent chose New Hampshire to be the “free state”; Wyoming came in second with 42 percent.

But initial enthusiasm soon waned. Curtis conceded that for pledge signers to follow through with the move sometimes requires grim circumstances in their home states.

“A lot of people who follow the rabbit hole of liberty have already lost their friends and family to begin with, because they’re willfully ignorant of something we believe very strongly in,” he said. “And what we’re creating is an individualist, intentional community, and I point out the individualist part because we’re not a commune or a cult or anything; people can live wherever they want.”

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Video: President Paul? (on this page)

Now the project seems to have found its stride. Currently, 12 Republican members of the New Hampshire Legislature hail from the movement (state law requires a minimum two-year residency to run). The first free stater elected, former state Rep. Joel Winters, was a Democrat.

Furthermore, Sorens's initial plea: “If luminaries like … Walter Williams and L. Neil Smith sign onto the project, we can really get this project off the ground,” was answered with endorsements from both.

On the national level, free staters insist that while their members may tend toward libertarian leaders like Paul, there will not be a conscious, collective push for any one candidate; any preference will be due to the “accidental confluence” of factors, said Sorens.

Carla Gericke, president of the Free State Project, said she “did support Ron Paul in 2008; in fact, I was living in New York City at the time, and had Ron Paul posters in the windows of a very Democratic area.” But, she continued, “I haven’t decided yet who I’ll vote for in the next election. If I were to vote, I guess it would probably be for Ron Paul. Doing anything that sort of expands freedom is something I’m interested in pursuing.”

Sorens predicts that in 2012, members will be split between Paul and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, who declined a presidential drafting effort in 2000 by the Libertarian Party. And further research predicts what Sorens calls “statistically discernable” proof that free staters will continue to influence the primary process in New Hampshire on an increasingly larger scale.

Curtis says if anything, though, Paul’s politics are “helping our mission more than we’re helping his.”

The article, "For Some Ron Paul Backers, a New Motto: Go East, Young Man (and Woman)," first appeared in the National Journal.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

Video: Paul on Federal Reserve, 2012

  1. Closed captioning of: Paul on Federal Reserve, 2012

    >> we have created new ways to ease monetary policy . we have brought the federal funds rate target close to zeer he row. we have with used forward guidance in our language to affect expectations of policy changes. and of course, as everybody knows , we have now been through two rounds of purchasers of longer term securities. clearly this is the case we have done extraordinary things to try to help this economy recover.

    >> that, of course, the head of the american central bank , the federal reserve , ben bernanke , holding his first-ever press conference this afternoon telling us all the ways that he has saved our economy. wall street and world markets listening closely to every word for clues for what the fed might do next, especially when it comes to not only interest rates but just how much money they are willing to print. and joining us now with a lot to say in response, outspoken fed critic, outspoken ben bernanke critic and now a potential it 2012 potential presidential candidate , republican congressman ron paul of texas, who recently announced the formation of an exploratory committee for the 2012 race. congressman, pleasure to have you back. what is the fundamental issue with the single individual or group of individuals that is the board of the federal reserve basically exercising supreme authority to manage our economy? what is your issue with that?

    >> well, i don't think they are capable of doing it. i won't even challenge their intentions. they maybe well-intentioned, but they can't do it, it is impossible. talk about these program and designs to usher in new currency and print all this money. the question what is your position on the dollar you know what he said, he said what all the fed chairmen have told me over the year that is the job of the secretary of the treasury to take care of the currency. and here he is inflating the kur rehn sand destroying it the very duration of his one-hour press conference, the value of the dollar went down it went down not only in relationship to other currencies but went down related to gold about $20 worth. and he says the official policy is a strong dollar. that to me just sort of -- tips me off and everybody else it should tip him off that it is just talk, you snow and then that -- there was a good question asked about, well, there could be a time when prices will go up. yeah, he recognized that prices could be going up and we could get to the point that we would have to do something. and the repercussions on employment could be significant. of course they could be. i mean, they are going to be forced into that trap and he is not ready to do it, he won't admit that. prices always go up for some other reason, never because the federal reserve creates new money. that's the part that sort of exasperates me, but he is reflecting a keynesian version of fiat money and centro economic planning that just totally disagree with.

    >> how is it you would recommend political tools or policy tools were used to rein in that abuse, whether the most obviously being the threat to our currency and minor and offensive ones, everything from matt taibbi 's coverage of money that went to the wives of those on wall street to the money that continues to be paid out to the had heavily subsidized banks what tools exist to rein it in?

    >> well, the tools should be not to have -- not to have stable prices that encourages wage and price control . what you want is a stable currency. now, he was pretty sharp, as all fed chairmans are congress spends too much money, get control of the debt, the debt was a very serious problem but he controls the tools for that and of course it is policy that the fed is supposed to buy up debt and keep interest rates low and that's going to stimulate the economy. but if we didn't have that policy, that's the most significant policy change that we could have, is take away the power of the fed to buy the debt that congress create f they couldn't do that, the fed couldn't do that interest rates would go up and they say, oh, horrors, horrors, well, more people would save number and drive interest rates down, congress would have to quit spending money because they would be draining the reserves out of the financial system . so they would be self-regulating, but as long as the fed is the lender of last resort , believe me, we are going to continue to have these problems and it lasted for a long time, especially since 1971 , longer than they deserve, but on this go-around it is not going to be so easy just to inflate our way out and did he not recognize in the press conference that you can have high prices with a weak economy. he keeps wanting to say high prices go up because of high demand, you know, high demand for oil. that's the only reason the commodity prices are being pushed up. and as long as he accepts that, we are in big trouble because they will not come up with a solution and they are destined to destroy the value of the dollar.

    >> if you were to look at your political scenarios over the next year and a half, with the announcement of the exploratory committee , many folks look to you as a voice of rational debate on fiscal conservatism , on american freedom , of policies that lead to equality and equal opportunity, in this country, as an advocate of economic policies , they same time there are those skeptical of your ability to win a nomination from the republican party because they perceive the republican base to be overly invested in social issues that ultimately may not -- you may not be the strongest candidate to deal with. do you agree with to those who are skeptical of your ability to ride a fiscal conservative 's wave to the nomination for president?

    >> yeah, i understand exactly what you're talking about and that is a bit of reality you but the truth is, me personally, you know, i live a very conservative life. i just don't impose it you know, by laws. but the republicans also have a shortcoming because they talk about cutting, but they are urging more spending by obama on the military. they want more. there's many complaining that they are not going in strong arer in libya and doing more and getting rid of that dictator. so, they are not willing to look at that. so i think the country is ready for this, to look at monetary policy , look at cutting -- cutting the programs necessary, concentrate on a wise choice and i think we should start with cutting this overseas stuff and getting out of all these wars and i do think that the domestic stuff has to be cut, but you know to say you're going to cut npr and planned parenthood , i think you're going to balance the budget and increase the am of money we are spending for the military industrial complex , that won't sell and that's not good economic policy but we cannot address these problems without seriously considering and understanding how the federal reserve works.

    >> if you were to look, though, at the primary process, do you believe that the rhetoric that you just offered to me here, appealing to somebody like myself and a lot of other folks i suspect will that play in iowa?

    >> that's good question and we will see. i feel -- you know, i was out there yesterday to make the announcement and the reception was dramatically different from four years ago. it was an unknown event four years ago. so, things are different. the campuses are alive and well these ideas and the young people know that there's not much future in social security . they don't like the foreign policy . so, there is a big difference coming and it's a different world right now. so, it remains to be seen but it will be a real challenge, but -- and i think that's one of the reasons why there's an exploratory committee and i will be at a university in reno tomorrow. i have gone many in the past month, the receptions keep growing. but our problems keep growing and hopefully, they see the wisdom in free mark else and individual freedom and a sensible foreign policy .

    >> and one of the things obviously that's appealing about you as a candidate among those in the gop field is your incredible intellect and credentials on economic policy . your very rational advocacy about our involvement overseas and certainly from the eyes of somebody like myself, it's why a voice like yours is welcome. at the same time, at the top of the field these days, at least in his own man is a man like donald trump . how do you view your ability to steer the ship toward the debate that you're having with me here now and away from the sort of the absurdity of this morning?

    >> well, you know, i sort of have are been saying the same thing for a long time. i think the debate is coming my way or our way and you know, after campaign was over, even though it was noticeable in '07 and early '08 the crisis was coming, but when the financial bubble burst and the housing bubble burst, all of a sudden, austrian free market economics gained a lot of credibility. so i think as long as i said the course and keep saying the same thing and the proof of the pudding is the failure of the system that we have and the failure of keynesianism and the failure of our foreign policy and the shortcomings of fiat money , i think the people are just going to move and i think is going to happen. i already see signs of that you know, other candidates would certainly not, you know, outwardly agree with me but they will start using my language, you know? we have to have a sound dollar and take control, more clients, you know, claire wit federal reserve and transparency. so i think the language is changing. the intellectual climate is changing. the debate on television is changing. and certainly the debit on college campus is changing. i think the revolutionary process and ideas is moving in the direction that i would like to see it go.

    >> well, congressman, it will be certainly enjoyable to perpetuate this debate in the months and years to come and you are a leader in helping us do that we appreciate your time this afternoon. ron paul , thank you, sir.

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