Paul May Be Down But His Movement Is Not Out

Republicans would waste an opportunity to broaden their base by spurning Rand Paul’s supporters.

Kentucky senator Rand Paul prepares to make a speech in Des Moines, Iowa, February 6
Kentucky senator Rand Paul prepares to make a speech in Des Moines, Iowa, February 6 (StumpSource/Alex Cooney)

Rand Paul’s slump in the polls is disheartening for libertarians and advocates of a less hyperactive foreign policy but the Republican Party should still be cautious about dismissing him. The Kentucky senator’s presidential candidacy represents an opportunity to woo Americans who normally vote Democrat or don’t vote at all.

Although early polls are typically a poor indicator of how well a candidate will do in the presidential primaries, it is hard not to draw conclusions from the fact that Paul’s support is at its lowest in over two years.

FiveThirtyEight contrasts the younger Paul’s poll figures with those of his father, Ron, when he ran for the Republican nomination four years ago and finds the son has reason to worry.

Whereas Ron’s support was rising at this point in the nominating contest, Rand’s is dropping. Ron Paul won more than 20 percent of the votes in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire. His son now polls around 8 percent in both states.

That may not reveal much in itself, writes the website’s Harry Enten.

Again, it’s super early and the Republican field is crowded and confused; as more and more candidates enter the race — there are now sixteen — it becomes more difficult for candidates to maintain their support. Donald Trump is busy sucking up all the media’s attention and there’s a decent argument to be made that Trump is appealing to Paul’s voters.

But Paul’s favorability ratings are falling too. Whereas 62 percent of Republicans had a favorable impression of the Kentucky senator at the start of the year, just over half do now. The share of right-wing voters that has an unfavorable view of him has shot up from 14 to 27 percent.

It looks like the more voters get to know Paul, the less interested they are. It’s difficult to say if they are put off by his policy or personality but a Politico story suggests the latter. It cites campaign sources that describe Paul as “an undisciplined politician who wasn’t willing to do what it took to win — a man who obsessed over trivial matters like flight times, peppered aides with demands for more time off from campaigning and once chose to go on a spring-break jaunt rather than woo a powerful donor.”

Paul has raised only $13 million for his campaign so far, “a fraction of what all of his major rivals for the Republican nomination have raised and far less than Paul hoped.”

Those close to Paul say there’s a simple reason for his lack of success: He’s simply not willing to do the stroking and courting that powerful donors expect. He’s downright allergic, they say, to the idea of forging relationships with the goal of pumping people for dough.

If Paul doesn’t show more interest in the election, he would leave a void.

RedState‘s Erick Erickson doesn’t support Paul but nevertheless laments his inability to attract more attention and support.

I think we need a conversation within the Republican Party on the civil liberty issues and civil rights issues he raises. But with Paul’s campaign floundering, it is not going to happen.

As the Atlantic Sentinel reported in April, when Paul declared his candidacy, the senator could have real impact on the early race if he forces the other candidates to talk about issues they would rather avoid and splits the anti-establishment vote to the benefit of the frontrunner, Jeb Bush.

Paul, elected to the Senate in 2010, has made a name for himself by opposing government surveillance of Americans’ Internet and phone data and challenges Republican orthodoxies in foreign policy. He questions the legality of using unmanned aircraft to kill suspected terrorists and resists the kneejerk interventionism of hawks in his party who seem to want to start a war whenever there is a crisis in the world.

Given how thoroughly the Iraq War has discredited neoconservatism, Paul’s more risk-averse policy is a strong antidote to the tough-if-unthoughtful rhetoric of some of his fellow contenders for the nomination.

Another issue he has raised is the relatively high incarceration rate among blacks. Paul points out that mandatory minimum sentencing laws for nonviolent drug offenses are disproportionately — and unfairly — applied to male African Americans who make up around 40 percent of the prison population despite accounting for only 6 to 7 percent of the population at large.

These excessive incarceration rates have contributed to the breakdown of the black family which conservatives see as the root cause of the minority’s economic and social backwardness. If Paul can convince Republicans that sometimes being “tough on crime” does more harm than good, he could lead a real breakthrough for more sensible drug laws — and perhaps even convince some blacks to vote Republicans.

But if he continues to lose popularity and does poorly in the early nominating contests next year, it would be easy for defense hawks and social conservatives to write off Paul’s candidacy as irrelevant — just as they did with his father four years ago.

That would be a mistake.

At the time, Jim DeMint, a leading Tea Party senator and now the president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, cautioned against ignoring the elder Paul and his supporters. “The whole debate within the Republican Party needs to be between conservatives and libertarians,” he said.

In both Iowa and New Hampshire, Ron Paul won half the youth vote in 2012. In the second state, he also won the support of a third of self-declared independents (who can participate in the presidential primaries there). These constituencies tend to lean Democrat but are attracted by a libertarianish message of limited government interference in Americans’ private lives and their private businesses and an end to seemingly perpetual war abroad.

It may turn out Rand Paul is not the right candidate to lead this movement. But the movement is there and Republicans would throw away an opportunity to broaden their party by spurning it.