James Davis cleared the week, trekked from the Columbia University campus in New York to New Hampshire, and got ready to start his assignment: Getting out the vote for Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, On Wednesday morning, the 19-year-old student started the walk into the office on 50 Bridge Street, and happened past a TV.
That was how he learned Paul had dropped out of the race. “Yeah, this is not what I expected to be doing,” Davis said, smiling wryly, as he helped half a dozen other Paul supporters un-build the office.
Paul knew on caucus night that he might have to quit his race for the presidency. He broke the news slowly. Then all at once, his New Hampshire team called in for a morning conference call.
Many of them had volunteered for Ron Paul, the candidate’s father, who won 22.9 percent of the vote here in 2012. And now, six days before the polls opened, they were stripping out phone lines, wiping off voter contact lists, ripping posters with Paul’s wordy slogan – Defeat the Washington Machine, Unleash the American Dream.
Paul’s state political director David Chesley roamed the halls in his “Las Vegas tracksuit” and gold sneakers, giving away anything he could. Kristin Noble, an activist and legislative candidate, rolled up the massive canvas “We Stand With Rand” poster signed by every supporter who walked into the office.
Almost everyone who runs for president loses, and almost every campaign staff goes through the tedious agony of breaking down the campaign office. With a few words from the candidate, the place where people spent unhealthy amounts of time on phone calls and envelope-stuffing becomes a mausoleum.
Paul’s was eerier than the norm, if only because a large poster of a clown dominated the biggest space and greeted anyone who punched in. (Paul had shot the clown then signed next to its head, at a target practice.) Stacks of envelopes, letters focusing on various issues – energy, civil liberties – were plunked uselessly next to a desk. Signed cards from the senator himself would go out to thank people. Nothing else in the office was of much use.
“Tomorrow, I go back to being a state representative,” said Rep. Tammy Simmons, one of Paul’s earliest supporters, still wearing a T-shirt with the campaign’s New Hampshire logo. “I go back to getting good, liberty people elected. When a campaign ends. You walk away with more friends, more knowledge, and helpfully a little bit more liberty.” She wiped away tears. “I’m sorry, it’s emotional.”
From 2008 to today, one reliable fact of politics was that the Paul family did not quit. Ron Paul had not ended his Republican bids for president until the Republican National Convention voted to give the nomination to someone else. In 2008, he transitioned his campaign organization into a nonprofit, the Campaign for Liberty. Both years, he gathered thousands of fans for his own counter-programming rallies.
Those Ron Paul campaigns were generally understood to be movement-building exercises. Rand Paul’s campaign, at first, was designed to win a nomination. The New Hampshire office was going to be the hub of an effort that kept Paul in the race.
Not anymore. Michael Biundo, who’d rented this exact same office space when he was Rick Santorum’s 2012 campaign manager, finished a conference call at his desk then watched CNN. It had moved on from the news of Paul’s exit, to the news of Rick Santorum’s. Biundo expected the whole office to be cleared out tomorrow – all of it, including the chainsaw Paul had signed after using it in a video in which he massacred the tax code.
“Any time a campaign ends, you’re packing up the relationships,” said Biundo. “Some people I’ll meet further down the road. When you work this long with a group of people, one of two things happen. You either work too long with people you don’t get along with or you build solid relationships. Here, I’ve built solid relationships.”
But what had happened to the candidate? The answer in Manchester was that Donald Trump had scrambled the election, denying airtime to a candidate with actual ideas.
“With Trump or with [Sen. Ted] Cruz, you have people who identity themselves as the liberty wing of the party, but they’re really social conservatives,” said Simmons. “Liberty is just the cool, ‘in’ word.”
“We were liberty before it was cool,” added Noble.
In just a few hours, Paul had gone from a full-blown candidacy to a broken vehicle that other campaigns would strip for parts. That might have been preferable to the alternative, a likely defeat in New Hampshire, with volunteers cracking the 1 million phone call barrier in order to drag into single digits again.
Another solace: Paul’s team had never cracked. Nobody had leaked the news about the campaign’s finale. And despite the best efforts of Cruz, no one in campaign leadership had abandoned Paul when the polling numbers cratered.
“No one left Rand,” said Biundo. “And he had endorsements from 29 state reps, and two state senators, which said a lot about their commitment to Rand.”
“He had more legislative endorsements than anyone else,” said Chesley.
Those legislators were free to endorse someone else now. Some of the people who decided to spend their Wednesday breaking down the office were too shocked to make another decision. Some had already made it: to punch Paul’s name on the ballot anyway. And some were getting calls, wondering whether they really wanted to forge ahead with a candidate they had not invested so many hours in.
“I’m getting calls from other campaigns, but I’ve got a business to run,” Biundo said. “I’m not sure. Usually you have the luxury of a couple of days to think it over. I don’t have that.”