Among many in the chattering class, Sen. Rand Paul is the GOP frontrunner for president. He’s young. He’s interesting. He’s different. In other words, he’s everything that the last GOP nominee for president wasn’t. That said, the real test of a frontrunner is the ability to stand the test of time and to wear well over the course of a long process. Scratch below the surface of Paul’s appeal, and you can see many ways in which he’ll have difficultly standing the test of time.
Many media types (including those who should know better) point to the Kentucky Senator’s success in recent straw polls as proof of his electoral strength. These polls aren’t proof of anything other than the fact that he has lots of support among a self-selected group of GOP voters who have the time and energy to show up at all-day political events (think young people at the CPAC convention). Even scientifically rigorous 2016 horse race match-ups are pretty worthless at this point as they capture little more than name recognition.
To be sure, Sen. Paul starts off with a solid base of support and has the ability to expand on it. He has a committed following among a small, but active Libertarian-leaning base that supported his father’s two bids for office. He is beloved by the Tea Party, but has also been engaged in serious outreach to traditional GOP power brokers.
More important, Paul is self-aware enough to understand that his father’s political organization brings him both a committed group of voters and volunteers, and a boatload of controversy. But distancing himself from his father is going to be more difficult than he thinks it will be.
The New Republic’s Julia Ioffe wrote that Rand Paul “bristled” when she asked to him to “delineate the differences” between him and his father. “I don’t think it’s really that useful to go into that,” he shot back. “I’ve got two years of voting and three or four years of speaking now, so if you people want to noodle out differences, it’s fine, but I don’t think it’s particularly useful for me to.”
More recently, Paul told the Daily Caller’s Alex Pappas that he’s “pretty much quit answering” questions about whether he and and his father agree on certain issues. “I’ve been in the Senate three years, and I have created a record of myself,” the younger Paul told Pappas. “And I have my opinions.”
Rand Paul may think he’s done answering for his dad, but you can bet that Paul’s opponents within and outside the GOP are not going to let that happen. The real question isn’t “when will Paul have to stop answering for his father,” it is “how effective will he be at answering them”?
Slate’s Dave Weigel is skeptical that the Kentucky Senator has the discipline needed to respond to such attacks. “Years of experience and evidence tell us that Paul can be rattled by that. His potential opponents know this.”
The media is also enthralled by Paul’s desire to appeal to non-traditional GOP voters. He is not afraid to go where the typical GOP candidate for president wouldn’t dare to tread. Howard University. The U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. The University of California at Berkley! However, before he can win over those voters, he’s got to win a GOP primary.
Paul’s more dovish views U.S. military intervention, NSA spying, and foreign policy may expand his appeal in a general election. But, they will be problematic in a GOP primary. While even many “traditional” GOP voters may not consider themselves neo-cons, many are supportive of a more robust definition of American foreign policy and military presence. It’s hard to believe that those voices would remain silent if they saw Paul as a serious threat. Paul won’t just be attacked on the debate stage, but on the airwaves, mailbox, and internet as well. Paul, however, seems quite conscious of this fact. Paul’s recent trip to Israel, wrote the Business Insider, was “aimed at dispelling the perception that his libertarian foreign policy views are incompatible with his party's hardline stance toward Israel.”
As important, however, is getting the “establishment” GOP comfortable with a Paul candidacy. As The Washington Post’s Dan Balz pointed out in a piece he wrote earlier this month, no matter how messy and unruly the GOP primary process has looked over the years, the victor has always been the one supported by the “Establishment.”
Citing the work of Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Balz wrote: “The most conservative wing generally gets the most attention, but the voters who count most in the GOP nomination process are those who say they are ‘somewhat conservative.’ This is the largest group nationally and is consistently a big presence in all the states, unlike some of the other factions. ‘They are not very vocal but they form the bedrock base of the Republican Party,’ Olsen writes. ‘They also have a significant distinction: they always back the winner.’”
These “bedrock” voters don’t show up at straw polls. They don’t wave signs or show up at rallies. They do, however, vote. And, while much has been made of the Tea Party overpowering the establishment in congressional primaries, it’s important to remember that presidential primaries bring out a much bigger and more diverse electorate. Paul’s association with his father and the libertarian movement are a likely red flag to these more traditional voters.
I get why the media loves covering Rand Paul. He’s actively challenging GOP orthodoxy. He likes talking to reporters. He’s multi-dimensional. But, that doesn’t automatically translate into “frontrunner” status. He has some significant hurdles he’ll need to climb before then. He’s like a house with instant curb appeal, but we don’t know if the house is sturdy until we start poking around at the infrastructure. At the end of the day, Rand Paul's biggest challenge won't be convincing people he can expand the base of the party. It will be in convincing the traditional and establishment Republican base of the party that he is truly presidential material.