Wow, the ads work

A group of libertarians has been plotting to take over New Hampshire for years—and now they’re closer than ever

Fifteen years ago, a 24-year-old Yale graduate student proposed a radical experiment for those who are not huge fans of the government. He suggested that a large group of libertarians in the U.S. all move to a single small state and, essentially, take over that state’s culture and government to make it friendlier toward the free market. He named this plan the “Free State Project.”

The state the project chose was New Hampshire. Rather than just hoping libertarians would slowly move there over time, the FSP decided they’d have a pledge process. Those devoted to a more-limited government would promise to move to New Hampshire once their pledge reached 20,000 signatures. The signatures came trickling in over the years, but in the last four months, the number of people signing up for the move accelerated rapidly. It took 15 years for the movement to attract 18,000 signers, but it got 2,500 just in the last few months.

“We started doing Facebook ads,” explained Free State Project president Carla Gericke by phone. She says they A/B tested different ads and found that this one, targeted at people who supported Ron Paul, who looked like people who liked their Facebook page, or who self-identified as libertarians, had a strong conversion rate:

Via Carla Gericke

Via Carla Gericke

“The targeting worked,” Gericke told me by phone. “We started spending $500 a day on the ads, basically all the money we had.”

The fringe group found its fans through targeted advertising; welcome to modern politics. Now, thanks in part to the Facebook push, the Free State Project has reached 20,000 signatures, triggering the move. Those who signed the pledge are expected to move to New Hampshire within 5 years. If everyone moves, the libertarians will represent 1.5 percent of the state’s 1.3 million person population, and, they hope, a significant percentage of the state’s voters.

There are already 2,000 Free Staters living in New Hampshire. They’ve elected over a dozen members to local government and have made the state a test ground for “freedom-enhancing technologies,” including Bitcoin, 3D-printing and laser art (for messaging in public spaces). They’ve gotten press attention for a practice known as “Robin Hooding”—in which Free Staters will renew strangers’ parking meters as a goodwill gesture.

They’ve gotten attention from New Hampshire lawmakers. A local politician called the movement the state’s “single greatest threat.” The city of Concord listed the group as a domestic terrorist threat when it applied for a $250,000 grant from the Department of Homeland Security for an armored military vehicle called a Bearcat.

When I wrote about the Free State Project’s technologies, Jason Sorens, the guy who launched the movement while at Yale, called those accusations “absurd.”

“We believe in privacy and civil liberties,” Sorens told me. “The idea that we are a potential terrorist group is absurd.”

Gericke says her group will now start reaching out to people who signed the pledge “pretty aggressively” to commit to moving.

“Not everyone will come,” she said. “Some people signed up a decade ago. But if they do come, they’ll find it’s pretty nice here. The quality of life is great. I just bought a 4 bedroom, 3 bathroom house in downtown Manchester for under $250,000.”