What better way to return our attention back to politics than to ponder the standing of one of the more interesting candidates in either field, the libertarian Senator Rand Paul. Our friend Professor Christopher Galdieri, who teaches New Hampshire politics at St. Anselm’s College in Manchester, has some thoughts.
Since the first Republican debate, we've been hearing lots of chatter about how Rand Paul is in trouble, he's not raising enough money, his campaign staff is turning over, people close to him have been indicted, and so on. This is a far cry from where Paul had been early last year, when The Atlantic was calling him the Republican front-runner. In the wake of the GOP's 2012 defeat, many observers looked at Paul's libertarian and small-government positions on many social issues, his outreach to African Americans and other minorities, and his general opposition to surveillance and military adventurism, and saw exactly the sort of change that could lead the Republicans out of the electoral wilderness. Yet here we are eighteen months later, with Paul's campaign making little headway. What happened?
Part of Paul's problem is the result of circumstances. No one expected that, after threatening to run for president in four different decades, Donald Trump would actually pull the trigger, and no one expected that he would dominate the early polls for the Republican nomination at all, let alone for as long as he has. Trump will not be the Republican nominee, but the media's ongoing focus on him and his chances leaves little oxygen in the room for other contenders like Paul. Nor did anyone expect that seventeen candidates would seek the Republican nomination. Competing with so many others for what little time and space isn't being occupied by the Trump controversy of the moment may dilute the impact of Paul's campaign and whatever appeal his departures from conservative orthodoxy holds.
Paul himself may also bear some of the blame; his father was never a viable candidate and so the other candidates rarely attacked or criticized him. But as a sitting senator who quickly made a name for himself (for instance, with his multiple filibusters) during his time in office, Rand Paul has not escaped criticism from his fellow candidates. And while his father had a certain folksy charm, Paul himself can be reserved or even prickly on the campaign trail or the debate stage, as we saw during his heated exchange with Chris Christie in the Cleveland debate.
But I would argue that the biggest problem Paul is facing is that many observers have overestimated the potential constituency for a Rand Paul campaign by using the 2012 primaries as a baseline. As a New Hampshirite, I'll focus on the New Hampshire primary. Ron Paul came in second place with 22.9% of the vote. That's a very strong showing on the surface. However, I suspect Ron Paul's showing had a lot to do with the dynamics of the 2012 primary field, which was a historically weak one. Mitt Romney was the front-runner almost by default; many of the other candidates either had not held office in years (Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Buddy Roemer) or proved to be poor candidates (Rick Perry). Jon Huntsman, as a center-right former governor, offered few meaningful differences from Romney and had served in the administration of President Obama. By the time of the primary, there was no real viable alternative to Romney. And the Ron Paul candidacy was valuable to Romney: A vote for Ron Paul was a vote that was not being cast for Santorum or Perry or someone else who could potentially win the nomination. As a result, Romney was careful to praise and at times defer to Ron Paul throughout the 2011 and 2012 debates to boost his campaign at the expense of the other candidates. This isn't to say that lots of people didn't cast sincere votes for Ron Paul in 2012 – but many of them might have voted for someone else had there been a stronger field.
In fact, let's look at a year when the Republicans put forth a stronger field. Ron Paul sought the GOP nomination in 2008. That year, the field also included John McCain, the runner-up from the previous competitive Republican nomination; Rudy Giuliani, whose reputation was then still largely shaped by 9/11; and well-known figures like Mike Huckabee, Fred Thompson, and Mitt Romney. Many of these candidates proved to be weaker than their reputations might have suggested, but 2008 did not present voters with the collection of longshots and also-rans that made up the bulk of the 2012 field. And when voters went to the polls that year – again, let's look at New Hampshire's primary – Ron Paul only won 7.7% of the votes cast.
Despite its size and the number of candidates with no shot at winning the nomination, the 2016 Republican field, in my view, has more in common with 2008's field than with 2012's. That suggests to me that Ron Paul's 2008 showing is a closer representation of the natural constituency for a libertarian Republican candidate, and that Rand Paul's showing next year is likely to look more like his father's 2008 vote than his father's 2012 vote, especially in the absence of a front-runner trying to prop Rand Paul up to siphon votes away from potentially viable rivals.