They approached the entrance to the Bernie Sanders speech, and the libertarians were waiting. On Saturday afternoon, before 750 or so liberal voters could hear the Vermont senator and Democratic presidential candidate at a Keene, New Hampshire, rec center, smiling members of “the Shire Society” handed them fliers.
“Something to read while you wait,” chirruped local libertarian activist Derrick J. Freeman, as he grabbed another flier from his stack. “I just think anyone could be interested in the ideas of liberty.”
He was not baiting liberals, or trolling them. He was being serious. Freeman wore a cat T-shirt and chatted about his documentary, Derrick J’s Victimless Crime Spree, with people who did not mind the conversation—and who often agreed. Plenty were familiar with the “Free Keene” movement of libertarians, anarchists, and voluntaryists who made news whenever they made a mockery of the police.
“These guys, they’re not out to harm anybody,” said Robert LaMontaigne, a 51-year old disabled worker who’d driven half an hour from Vermont to see Sanders, but admired the "Free Keene" crowd. “A lot of people probably just don’t agree with them because they’re not willing to look at the other side of the coin.”
In fact, many are. As they waited for Sanders, several other people in the growing crowd said they admired Kentucky Senator Rand Paul’s two-week fight to dismantle the Patriot Act.
As most presidential contenders fight for segments of a reliable, partisan base, Paul and Sanders are both courting the voters who want to rebel. Paul, seeking the Republican nomination, identifies as “libertarian-ish.” Sanders, who jumped into the race for the Democratic nod, is a proud “democratic socialist.”
Although there are wide differences between the two on a number of issues — the size and role of government being chief among then — there is also much they share in common besides an appeal to disaffected voters. Both are suspicious of foreign entanglements; both opposed giving President Barack Obama fast-track authority to negotiate trade deals. Both have made the monied elites the chief target of their campaign rhetoric.
"Today, we stand here and say loudly and clearly that; “Enough is enough," Sanders said last month as he officially launched his campaign in Burlington, Vermont. "This great nation and its government belong to all of the people, and not to a handful of billionaires, their super-PACs and their lobbyists.”
Seven weeks earlier, Paul announced his campaign for the presidency in Louisville with similar sentiments: "We have come to take our country back from the special interests that use Washington as their personal piggy bank, the special interests that are more concerned with their personal welfare than the general welfare."
Listening to both
In New Hampshire over the weekend, there were voters who seemed to be listening to both men. In a state where the first primary of the 2016 presidential campaign will be held, and where voters can decide on the day of the election in which primary they want to vote, that could turn out to be a difference-maker.
Just as there were some Paul admirers at the Sanders event in Keene, some kudos for Sanders could be hears about 60 miles east, as Paul opened his New Hampshire campaign office in Manchester on Friday. More than a few people waiting for the Kentuckian stuck up for the blunt-spoken senator from neighboring Vermont—especially in comparison to the rest of the Democrats.
“He cares,” said Barry Devine, a Vietnam veteran who, in retirement, had started volunteering for campaigns. “Why would someone my age get into a race like this if he wasn’t sincere? He’s had executive experience, so I think he’s qualified that—certainly as qualified as anyone else.”
In another corner of the office, where staffers had set up a chili dog dinner for supporters, an engineer named Barry Devine said Sanders stood out for his integrity.
“He’s probably the most honest person on the Democratic side,” he said. “I don’t like a lot of what he says, but he’s a civil liberties type—even if his overall goal is to increase the amount of socialism in this country. We’re already one of the most socialist countries in the world, so I don’t like that, but the other Democrats don’t even admit it."
Marquis was not likely to vote for any Democrat. Yet Paul’s bigger problem might come with Democrats who now think they’ve got a radical choice of their own. Some of them had been part of his father’s coalition. In 2012, when liberals and Democratic voters had no real presidential primary, plenty crossed over to vote for then-Texas Congressman Ron Paul.
The libertarian who wanted to dismantle the welfare state won 28 percent of voters who said they were fiscally liberal, and 32 percent of voters who were “satisfied” with the Obama presidency. He beat Mitt Romney with the Democrats who cast Republican primary ballots; he won the independent vote outright.
Months ago, it looked as though a Democratic field empty of any candidate but the favorite, Hillary Clinton, would make those voters gettable for Rand Paul.
Sanders has given them another choice. It hardly matters that Paul's calling for a flatter tax code and smaller government, while Sanders is calling for Medicare-for-all and expanded Social Security. On the issues most likely to attract alienated voters—on foreign policy, on whether Washington's current masters have forfeited public trust—there is just enough overlap.
On Saturday, Paul and Sanders found themselves giving their audiences remarkably similar takes on the Islamic State. At a diner in Merrimack, Paul told a breakfast crowd of Republican activists that he rejected the “simplistic, junior high” hawkishness of most Republicans. He just didn’t think American could be expected to build a lasting peace in the Levant, all by itself.
“Frankly, all of the other so-called civilized Muslim nations around there, that have been fomenting problems—Qatar, Saudi Arabia—they need to immediately stop doing the wrong thing,” said Paul. “And then they need to show an ability to stamp out this crazy form of Sunni Islam, ISIS. We had this problem in Vietnam. The people who live here need to care more than we do. If the people don’t care to fight, we can’t be the only ones fighting for them.” Paul wanted Saudi Arabia and Turkey (“they’re in NATO, but they’re not doing much”) to mobilize, and for the United States to be less arrogant about getting involved.
Just hours later, Sanders was talking about the Islamic State to his crowd in Keene—and saying much the same thing.
“ISIS has to be defeated, but it is beyond my comprehension why anybody thinks it has got to be the United States alone defeating them,” said Sanders. “A lot of people don’t talk about this. I bet nobody in this room knows that Saudi Arabia has the third largest defense budget in the world. Alright? Far more powerful than ISIS. Alright? You’ve got Jordan, you’ve got Turkey, you’ve got countries in that region, and what we are looking at, in my view, is a struggle for the soul of Islam. Those countries must lead the effort, and we must be supportive.”
Without Sanders in the field, Paul might have been the only presidential candidate criticizing the Iraq legacy and calling for a light footprint in the Islamic State war. But Sanders is in the field. He'd summoned an audience where more than a few people wore vintage T-shirts about the Iraq War—“No War for Oil,” “Stop Making Veterans,” STOP WARS in the design of the Star Wars logo.
"I've got news for you," Sanders told them. "We're gonna win New Hampshire!"
No polling has showed Sanders close to achieving that. In an average of New Hampshire polls, the Vermont senator is running 28.5 points behind Hillary Clinton among Democrats. Paul is running just 2.4 points behind Jeb Bush; and as he now tells audiences at every stop, he typically runs stronger against Clinton than Bush does.
Whither disaffected Democrats?
Seven months from now, that polling is going to matter to people trying to maximize their insurgent vote. In 2000, Democratic insurgent Bill Bradley lost votes to Republican insurgent John McCain, often from independents who were concerned about campaign finance reform or honesty in Washington. In 2008, the Barack Obama campaign watched some swing voters jump over to McCain—again—after polling seemed to indicate that he'd have a tougher time winning the primary than the surging Illinois Democrat. In both years, their snap decisions were worth a few thousand votes, in a contest often fought by inches.
Paul and Sanders were aware of that, but some voters were beyond their reach. In Keene, after Sanders finished his 53-minute speech and 28-minute Q&A, he waded into the crowd. Christopher Cantwell, a 35-year old anarchist, was waiting. "Senator," he yelled, "after you take over the economy, what happens if someone with bad intentions takes it back?"
Sanders ignored him, and headed outside, where a Free Keene supporter was shouting questions about Edward Snowden. (Sanders has actually called for clemency; Rand Paul has joked that Snowden should share a jail cell with the Director of National Intelligence.) Caldwell got in the senator's face again, before retreating about 20 feet away from the press scrum and hoisting a sign that asked if America was at risk of turning into a fiscal basket case, like Greece.
Yet even a libertarian heckler could find something to like about Sanders. “I’m tempted to think that the guy has good intentions," Cantwell said after the senator left. "Even if Mr. Sanders was uniquely qualified to centrally plan the behavior of 320 million Americans—I don’t believe he is, but even if he was, he’s not going to be president forever.”
Did that mean that Cantwell would vote for Rand Paul? Not quite.
"I don't trust the guy," he said.