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.
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 “free staters,” as they call themselves, 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.
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 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.”
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.”
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.”
CORRECTION: The original version of this article incorrectly stated Andy Demers, a 2008 Ron Paul staffer, as a member of the Free State Project.