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Week of 12.14.07

Transcript: Ron Paul and Internet Politics

BRANCACCIO: Welcome to now.

The election calendar begins in less than a month, but already the 2008 Campaign is delivering a few surprises. One of those is the highly unusual, largely Internet-based presidential campaign of Republican Congressman Ron Paul of Texas.

He's not your ordinary candidate, and neither are his supporters, from anti-war progressives, anti-tax libertarians, civil liberties types, and even some white supremacists. How did all this political gumbo end up in the same pot?

We dove into "Ron Paul Nation"—the Internet movement that's gone viral by tapping into the discontent and anger of voters. But can that unfettered rage in the virtual world translate into anything that approaches practical policies in the real world? Senior Correspondent Maria Hinojosa and Producer Karla Murthy have our report.

On a chilly Saturday afternoon, several thousand people have come to Philadelphia to see Ron Paul, the Republican Congressman from Texas who's running for president.

One of those people is Ely Hughes. He's never been to a political rally before. But that changed one day, when he was surfing on the Internet.

HUGHS: I think I was on YouTube and I was looking for some kind of guitar video or something.

He stumbled across a video, like this one, about Ron Paul.

RON PAUL VIDEO: We've allowed our nation to be overtaxed and overregulated, and overrun by bureaucrats...

HUGHS: Just hearing the man speak, sold me. It wasn't a highly charismatic kind of speech like a lot of the other candidates give out. He was just speaking the truth, and I was impressed by that.

Ron Paul has managed to not just impress people, but change them from apathetic observers to active supporters, and he hasn't done it with hugs and handshakes or the help of mainstream media. The Ron Paul movement was born and bred on the power of the Internet.

RON PAUL SPEECH: It has been said that there were 2 or 3 dozen spammers running the campaign, and it looks like there's a lot more!

Ron Paul's anti-war, anti-tax, anti-big government libertarian message has whipped up some passionate supporters, and many have never been active in politics before.

By taking the Internet by storm, they've raised millions of dollars and transformed his campaign from cash strapped to cash magnet. And that flood of money has helped turn Ron Paul into a wild card in the upcoming primaries. Ron Paul's unexpected rise has stunned the political establishment, but is the country ready for Ron Paul Nation?

At this bar in Chicago, a Ron Paul Meet-up group is learning how to collect petitions. Meet-ups are gatherings of people with similar interests, from poodles to politics. They find each other on-line and then meet-up. Brian Costin is the Meet-up organizer.

COSTIN: He is willing to stand up for the Constitution, even when it's unpopular.

Ron Paul's strict interpretation of the Constitution- to protect against government abuse—has earned him his nickname "Dr. No." He voted "no" against the Iraq War, "no" against a federal ban on same sex marriage, "no" against sending money to Hurricane Katrina victims and "no" against the Patriot Act.

In the age of flip-flopping politicians, Brian Costin was drawn to Paul's unwavering ideology.

COSTIN: A lot of people that don't agree with every one of his issues are more passionate about Ron Paul than they have been about any other candidate that they've ever had. I think that that comes from his principled consistency.

RADIO HOST: Welcome to Texas Congressman and presidential candidate, Ron Paul. Thanks for coming...Great to have you here.

We caught up with Ron Paul on the campaign trail at this local radio station in Charleston, South Carolina... and spoke with the 10-term-Congressman and former obstetrician in one of their studios.

HINOJOSA: Congressman, people like to say that you are "Dr. No." You are the contrarian. You say "no" to many things. So what does that look like with you as a president?

PAUL: Everything you say "no" to, you say "yes" to something else. If I say "no" to paper money, I say "yes" to sound money. If I say "no" to foreign intervention and preemptive war, I say "yes" to peace and commerce. I'm saying "no" to something that people are very disgusted with, and it's runaway big government.

In the early stages of his campaign, Ron Paul was having a difficult time getting his message out. He had no name recognition and no money to pay for ads, and what little attention he was getting from mainstream media journalists wasn't helping much.

ABC—"THIS WEEK" clip

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS:
What's success to you?

PAUL: Winning.

STEPHANOPOULOS: That's not going to happen.

But even though mainstream media wasn't taking him seriously, Ron Paul was converting more and more believers to his cause.

ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Most of the campaigns have distributed tasks. The Ron Paul campaign distributed power, and that's a far more intoxicating and exciting kind of distribution to be part of.

Zephyr Teachout was Howard Dean's online organizer and is now an Assistant Professor at Duke University. She says the easiest way to distribute power is on the internet. But most campaigns aren't using the Web in that way.

TEACHOUT: Almost all the candidates, this cycle, have tended strongly towards the managerial use of the Internet—the Coca-cola use. "Let's make the best site we can." I call them "Stepford sites." You come to those as a citizen, and you feel like, "This is very nicely done, and I don't belong here." There's no role for me as a thinking creative person.

Ron Paul's Website was sending a different message.

COSTIN: It was very bare bones. There weren't any social networking sites on it. It was just a very, very basic page.

Unlike the big name contenders backed with huge war chests and an army of political strategists, Ron Paul didn't have much to work with. So his supporters took it upon themselves to plaster Paul's message all over the Internet.

The no-rules and no-authorities nature of the Internet has long made it a home for libertarian ideas. So it's no surprise that a lot of Ron Paul supporters were already wired up and web-savvy. They posted incessantly on blogs, created hundreds and hundreds of Ron Paul videos on You Tube, and voted relentlessly on Internet polls. Ron Paul has over 70,000 thousand people signed up for Ron Paul Meet-up groups all over the country, way more than any other presidential candidate.

But even though Paul was getting massive online traffic, Teachout says mainstream media was more concerned with fundraising numbers.

TEACHOUT: When Ron Paul's supporters say, "Well, we have more You Tube views than about [anybody] else," and The New York Times says, "Well so and so raised more money than anybody else", it's not clear why we should as democrats value one more than the other.

Teachout says the way campaigns have traditionally worked is that money raised translates into TV ads, which translates into votes. But she says in the age of the Internet maybe we need to rethink that equation.

TREVOR LYMAN: Did I every think I would be a part of it? No...

Enter Trevor Lyman. He works in the Internet business, and has just uprooted his entire life from Miami Beach to New Hampshire, just to help Ron Paul.

LYMAN: There's a slogan that goes around on signs. It says, "Dr. Paul cured my apathy." (LAUGHTER)

In fact, in his 37 years, Lyman has never voted once.

HINOJOSA: It's a big leap from being somebody who never voted to suddenly changing your whole life because of a candidate.

LYMAN: It does go to the war, and the fact that not only are our soldiers dying, but innocent people are dying.

HINOJOSA: But there are other anti-war candidates?

LYMAN: But then there was 2006, and they all switched their story. We gave them the opportunity to end this war.

HINOJOSA: —you feel betrayed by the Democrats?

LYMAN: Absolutely. I feel betrayed by Congress as a whole, absolutely.

Ron Paul at CNN You Tube Debate: The best commitment we can make to the Iraqi people is to give them their country back, that's the most important thing we can do...

Ron Paul's fierce and consistent opposition to the war in Iraq has set him far apart from the other Republican candidates. But Lyman didn't find out about Ron Paul from watching the debates. He was on the Website MySpace—a social networking site, and noticed that people were changing their personal profiles into Ron Paul profiles...

LYMAN: And so basically, you started seeing Ron Paul's picture everywhere.

Lyman became a fervent supporter and decided to help Ron Paul raise some money. So he put in Internet skills to work, and set-up a Website for a one-day fundraiser called this November fifth dot com. Brian Costin remembers that day.

COSTIN: I was on Ron Paul's Website watching this banner go up and up and up. You thought it was going to slow down, you thought it was going to slow down and people were going to stop donating and it didn't stop through the entire day. And it was just incredible.

When it was all over they broke the record, raising 4.2 million dollars—the most money ever raised online in a single day. Mainstream media took notice.

NORAH O'DONNELL, MSNBC: "A fundraising bonanza..."

WOLF BLITZER, CNN: "It's an amazing sum of money; I don't remember someone doing that out on the campaign trail..."

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN: "Ron Paul had a good day Wolf, a very good day...."

HINOJOSA: When you saw what happened, $4.2 million in a day, when you found out, what was your reaction?

PAUL: Well, it was a tremendous surprise. How did they do this? Some put up signs that I have removed their apathy. And I respond by saying, well, you've eliminated my skepticism.

According to Ron Paul's campaign, 37,000 people contributed about $100 each that day. And 20,000 of them were new contributors. These are amazing numbers, but what makes this fundraiser so unique is that Ron Paul's campaign had nothing to do with it.

HINOJOSA: Did the Ron Paul campaign ever get in touch with you?

LYMAN: I've never met him. And I've only spoken with him once on the phone.

HINOJOSA: You've never met Ron Paul?

LYMAN: No.

HINOJOSA: But you raised $4.2 million for him?

LYMAN: Sure, I played my role. But, it was all of us, you know?

This is central to Ron Paul' s campaign. They let their supporters do whatever they want. One guy paid for this full page ad in USA Today. This couple turned their van into a Ron Paul mobile, and supporters are coming up with their own campaign slogans, like the "Ron Paul Revolution."

RON PAUL SUPPORTER: This appeals to everybody's independence. It's a small sign, but means big things.

And that kind of independence has created a lot of excited and dedicated supporters.

HINOJOSA: Do you think, though, that there's a danger because your campaign is not top down that people essentially can say and do with you whatever they want? You're not managing that.

PAUL: No, and it's risky. Freedom is risky. You know, sometimes people send me money and their lifestyle is something I don't like, and don't agree with.

It's true. Ron Paul has some controversial supporters, including a brothel owner and white supremacists. They are attracted to his message of small government with few regulations. But Ron Paul doesn't think he should give any of their money back.

PAUL: Should our main task be going through there and checking on 65,000 and what their personal beliefs are? That's impossible. I got their money away from them. So it's a plus because I'm going to spend it for what I consider a very positive thing.

HINOJOSA: But you could make a statement now that says, "I do not want any white supremacists"—

PAUL: I don't. I think the philosophy of white supremacy is completely wrong. It's immoral.

HINOJOSA: So you do not want white supremacist groups supporting your campaign?

PAUL: No, I don't, because it just muddies the water. So why would I want their money? I don't need it, you know? (LAUGHTER)

Up until now, Ron Paul has never said publicly that he doesn't want contributions from white supremacists.

CAMPAIGN AD: I'm Ron Paul and I'm running for president.

But now that he's flush with cash, Ron Paul is running ads in New Hampshire—the site of the first primary next month. And his poll numbers are beginning to rise.

Clips of New Hampshire ads

If Ron Paul could win any primary, New Hampshire would be the place. His libertarian ideas resonate well in the "live free or die" state. But what would a Ron Paul world really look like?

HINOJOSA: So paint a picture of a big American city and what it looks like with you as a libertarian Republican in office. How does it function?

PAUL: Well, the federal government would just be out of that city. They wouldn't be there.

And he means it. Ron Paul wants the government out of almost every aspect of our lives. If he got his way, he would dismantle a lot of federal programs.

HINOJOSA: The Federal Reserve?

PAUL: Yes, eventually, but I'm not for turning it off in one day.

HINOJOSA: The U.S. Department of Education?

PAUL: Oh, yes, I would do that.

HINOJOSA: Income tax?

PAUL: Oh, yeah, that's high on my agenda. But, if you want no IRS and no big government, you have to assume responsibility for yourself. That means that if you don't take care of yourself, you can't come begging and crawling and using force to take something from your neighbor. You're responsible for yourself.

EPSTEIN: The idea that government isn't done on the national level, and will be done more locally—that's one of the libertarian creeds.

David Epstein teaches political science at Columbia University. He says Ron Paul's philosophy of a lot less government and more personal responsibility ignores the reality of the society we live in.

EPSTEIN: Part of it is that everybody can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and everybody should take responsibility for their lives. The problem with that is that not everybody starts at the same starting point.

Epstein says, people come from different backgrounds, they don't have the same access to education, or healthcare, or make the same income. But, he says, the role of federal government has been to help level the playing field.

EPSTEIN: When it comes down to it, Americans agree there should be some social safety net. So to emphasize the personal responsibility part with out saying government also has some responsibility to help people when they're down, I think, is losing half of the equation.

But Epstein says, in the current political climate, it's no surprise that Ron Paul's message has attracted a lot of committed supporters.

EPSTEIN: A lot of Ron Paul supporters are very angry. They are looking at the political process and they're thinking they've been duped. They've been lied to, they haven't been told the truth, they don't see either party really fighting hard for their rights, and they're thinking now is the time to take back government.

And it's that feeling that drives this Meet-up group in New Jersey to get together every week. They've been gathering religiously for the past six months. Today they're making more signs for their weekly rally.

SHURTS: When I got involved in June, there was virtually no media coverage at all. I've been standing out on the corner every weekend since June, just doing this, and really spreading the word. Now, there has been a lot more media coverage, and it's really great. So, I really believe that we're making a difference.

Most campaigns work to connect more supporters with the candidate, but Zephyr Teachout says Ron Paul supporters are connecting more with each other, and that's a new way of building a political movement.

TEACHOUT: The funny thing about the Ron Paul campaign is he's like a little dot there in the middle (LAUGHTER). And all the support and excitement and creativity and generatively is out here. And he's not going to win the presidency, but that's a really powerful structure, and probably will outlast the campaign.

Back in New Hampshire, Trevor Lyman is helping plan an even bigger one-day fundraiser, on December 16th, appropriately on the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party. They hope to set another new money making record. But will Ron Paul's ideas have any lasting political impact?

HINOJOSA: What's your greatest fear about what's going to happen in the presidential elections?

HINOJOSA: I mean, if Ron Paul doesn't win—

LYMAN: It's not about Ron Paul. It's about this message. It's about this idea of returning to the principles of America.