Trygve Olson was a senior adviser to Ron Paul's 2012 presidential campaign. He has consulted for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Republican National Committee, and numerous campaigns via his company, Viking Strategies LLC.
As Republican soul searching continues it behooves the party to examine lessons from what some might see as an unexpected source, Ron Paul. The Washington establishment may be dubious that any answers to challenges the party faces will be found via the 77-year-old, libertarian-leaning, Republican. Yet a party growing greyer and whiter—in a country where the electorate is younger and more diverse—can learn a great deal from the man affectionately known to his supporters as Dr. Paul. In fact, as the "resident member of the establishment" in the Paul world, I have been reminded of a number of valuable lessons from my work on his behalf.
The Ron Paul movement grew from the ground up to over one million activists with a simple value-based message: liberty. The movement organically grew via blogs, websites, social networks, and word of mouth. It built an innovative system of moneybombs to translate activism into substantial financial resources, raising over $100 million in four years. It continues conducting extensive training via groups like Campaign for Liberty and undertakes campaigns based on issues manifesting its values. For example Audit the Fed and Internet Freedom. For the Paul movement values are the message.
Today Republicans appear less focused on promoting values and more on fighting on issues inside the 24 hour news cycle. Yet, the party's base is clamoring for leaders to stand up for adherence to the Constitution, for fiscal responsibility, and against excessive government. Exit polling from 2012 suggests these are not solely values of Tea Party activists, conservatives, or Republicans. In fact, 51 percent of voters in 2012 said government "is doing too much." However President Obama—the candidate of "government doing more"—received a quarter of these voters. To succeed, Republicans must demonstrate its values, like the idea that government is doing too much, are congruent with those of average Americans. As with Ron Paul, the party's messaging must become an application of values.
The second lesson Republicans should take from Ron Paul's movement relates to its vertical nature and organizational structure. The Republican Party is traditionally horizontal. The establishment classes devise the strategy, set the agenda, drive the messaging, and push the tactics. They assume activists will play along. This model is outdated in the age of Internet politics. The Paul movement's political operatives, like those in the Obama campaigns, realize they can't control the grassroots. Thus the goal of Paul efforts is to shape activism towards achievement of strategic goals. Thereby making the grassroots the drivers of the value based messaging and partners in the strategic cause. For the Republican Party to be successful it must become more vertical, empowering activists to be the tip of the spear in convincing others they share Republican values.
The third lesson from Ron Paul is about outreach to younger voters. Throughout his campaigns, and the years in between, Ron Paul succeeded where Republicans dare not go: college campuses. Conventional Republican wisdom is to cede this territory to Democrats. Yet, at iconic liberal bastions like Berkley and the University of Wisconsin, Ron Paul drew thousands. His message never wavered: Washington is broke; adhere to constitutional principles; pursue a humble foreign policy.
I am often asked why he connects with younger voters. My response is that to understand his appeal one must start with the world—and country—in which they are coming of age. Thirty year-olds today were in high school on 9/11. They understand terrorism doesn't just happen in faraway places. They have lived through two wars with classmates and friends deployed in far off lands, some who haven't returned. They have endured two major recessions and many are unable to find jobs while they are burdened with huge education debts. They voted for Obama's "hope and change." Through all of these experiences younger voters have been forced into self-reliance. Dr. Paul delivers a message based on self-empowerment, where government isn't the solution, which has the potential to be as powerful as "hope and change." However Republican values will not resonate with this generation until we start making our case.