By mid-December Ron Paul was polling an average of 16 percent in New Hampshire, compared to 9.8 percent nationally. The Texas congressman had invested considerable campaign resources in the nation’s first presidential primary contest, but there was an additional reason for his Granite State surge: the Free State Project (FSP), a movement of libertarian-oriented Americans who are migrating to New Hampshire to influence the political process.
FSP eschews the label “libertarian” for a bigger-tent appeal, but its political philosophy attracts advocates of a “nightwatchman state” or even no state at all. So far, about 800 people have relocated to New Hampshire as part of FSP. Around this time in 2007, that figure was closer to 350. A further 150 or so FSP activists lived in New Hampshire before the state was chosen as the movement’s destination.
One of those who moved to the Granite State as part of FSP is Women for Ron Paul chairwoman Jenn Coffey, who was elected as a state representative in 2008—a difficult year for the GOP. Coffey is now in the leadership of the new Republican majority in the state house. (Disclosure: I volunteered for her campaign in 2008.) Her career is emblematic of the multiplier effect that FSP activists seem to be having.
In 2010, 12 Free Staters won office in the state house, which has 400 members, and a classical-liberal caucus in that legislative chamber—the Natural Rights Council—now has about four dozen members. While Free Staters and their allies generally say they focus on state and local issues, many have also gotten involved in the Ron Paul campaign. (Others support Gary Johnson or Jon Huntsman.)
After the 2008 primary I tried to estimate the multiplier effect that Free Staters had on Ron Paul’s support in New Hampshire. At the time I was on FSP’s board of directors and had access to the member database with information on the towns where Free Staters lived. I ran a statistical analysis comparing Ron Paul’s town-level support with the number of Free Staters per capita in each town. What I found was that for every additional Free Stater in a town, Paul received on average two and a half more votes there. The result was statistically significant.
Free Staters, who were not unanimous behind Paul even in 2008, seem to be persuading some of their neighbors. The 2.5 to 1 ratio is almost certainly a lower-bound estimate of the total, state-level multiplier effect since many Free Staters involved in the Paul campaign also gave money or engaged in activism outside of their own towns.
In a separate analysis of all 50 states and the District of Columbia, I tried to figure out where Ron Paul’s latent support was highest in 2008. His observed vote shares in caucuses and primaries around the nation bore a strong relationship to the characteristics of each contest: he did much better in caucuses, wherever turnout was lower, where there were fewer candidates, and after John McCain had wrapped up the nomination. These features played to Paul’s appeal as an outsider and protest candidate with a diehard support base. The purpose of my analysis was to “net out” the influence of institutional factors and come up with a pure indicator of Ron Paul’s support in each state.
I simulated what Ron Paul’s support would have been if all states had the same rules, number of candidates, position in the calendar, and turnout. Under these conditions, Paul’s share in New Hampshire in 2008 would have been his highest in the nation, about 11.2 percent. His actual vote share was 7.7 percent. He did worse in New Hampshire than expected because it was a primary not a caucus, came early in the calendar, and therefore had a high number of candidates competing for votes. (Idaho, South Dakota, Washington, and the District of Columbia come next, in that order, in “estimated latent Ron Paul support” in 2008.)
The exercise passes a simple validity check: estimated latent Ron Paul support correlates much more highly with Paul donors per capita in 2007-8, as reported by ronpaulgraphs.com, than does observed Paul support. In a random sample, New Hampshire had 0.571 Paul donors per 1,000 residents in 2007-8, second highest in the nation. (Alaska was first at 0.582.)
What does this suggest about the Free State Project’s influence on the 2012 election? My hypothesis is that New Hampshire would not have had abnormally high latent Paul support in 2008 absent FSP. The mean national value of latent Paul support in 2008 was 5 percent. If we assume that without FSP New Hampshire would have been about the national average, then FSP roughly doubled his support in 2008—with some 350 activists.
With twice that number in New Hampshire today, we might expect Ron Paul’s support from 2008 to double—other things being equal—to roughly 15 percent of the Granite State vote. Of course, no two elections are alike, and by mid-December 2011 Paul was already doing roughly twice as well in national polls as he had been doing at the corresponding time in 2007—averaging 9.8 percent instead of 4.5 percent.
The forecast that Paul would double his 2008 performance in New Hampshire in 2012 was based purely on the assumption that some 400 additional libertarian activists are sufficient to double his support above what it would otherwise be. That is likely a generous assumption since it does not take into account diminishing marginal returns of activism: Paul’s campaign is now trying to convert voters who are less naturally sympathetic to him, simply because he is starting from a significantly larger base of support.
If we make the further generous assumption that Paul’s support in New Hampshire will rise about 40 percent from 2008 levels simply due to national trends, then combined with the FSP effect we come up with a total figure of 30 percent for Paul’s forecast support in the 2012 New Hampshire primary—likely enough to win or come a close second.
Nevertheless, the 30 percent forecast should be viewed as an upper bound on his possible support. A lower figure is more likely since we should assume that most of the new FPS activists’ potential influence on the primary is already observed in the polling numbers. But even 20 or 25 percent support for Ron Paul in the Granite State would be an earthquake to the Republican establishment. The Free Staters may not have intended to make waves in presidential primaries when they chose New Hampshire as the site for building their vision of a freer society, but they are on the brink of doing just that.
Jason Sorens is assistant professor of political science at the University at Buffalo, SUNY, and founded the Free State Project in 2001 while a graduate student at Yale.