Rand Paul Could Win the GOP Presidential Nomination

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Rand Paul’s appeal

Rand Paul, the junior senator from Kentucky, is a unique Republican: His multidimensional views appeal to American voters who find the choice between two increasingly unpopular factions unappealing. Still, the more left-leaning portion of the Democratic electorate may view his libertarian preference for small government as unacceptable and might worry about his positions on social issues like abortion.

His support of isolationist foreign policies earned him criticism from Republican Party heavyweights. It has also been argued that his support of fiscal reform will drag down any run for president. But his critique of the National Security Agency’s surveillance program received rousing support from a young audience in Berkeley, California, in early March, showing Paul’s ability to appeal to a wider range of voters than most of his Republican colleagues.

Some critics say the political contradictions in his ideology mean Paul has no chance of becoming president. Yet many voters are drawn to a politician who both criticizes the federal government’s surveillance apparatus and its use of drones on American citizens — he even conducted a 13-hour filibuster in 2013 — and wants to balance the budget; who supports the First Amendment and the Fourth Amendment as well as the Tenth Amendment; who acknowledges his religious beliefs while arguing that the GOP, “in order to get bigger, will have to agree to disagree on social issues”; and who believes the federal government should not prohibit gay marriage or the use of marijuana.

Paul is not the long-shot presidential candidate he once was. He has not officially declared his intention to run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, but his actions speak loudly to both voters and the Democratic National Convention.

A poll released by Quinnipiac University in early July showed Paul narrowly leading the tight Republican presidential field. If the Republican primaries were held last month, 11 percent of voters would have cast their ballots for Paul, with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush each capturing 10 percent of votes; Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan taking 8 percent; and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio notching 6 percent.

Twenty percent of voters remained undecided. Paul does not have the same popularity as his Democratic counterpart, former New York Sen. and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who garnered 58 percent of votes cast by members of her party. To contextualize this data, Democrats’ preference for Clinton as the presidential nominee is well documented, while a number of political analysts have questioned whether Paul could be a viable 2016 candidate.

An important feature of the Quinnipiac poll is the difference in size of the candidate pools for each party: Republicans were asked to choose between eight possibilities, while Democrats had only Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren as choices. While that fact does not detract from Clinton’s popularity, it is an important consideration when analyzing the data.

Would Republicans vote for Ron Paul?

In March, when oddsmakers were giving Paul anywhere from a 12-to-1 to a 28-to-1 chance at winning the nomination, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver evaluated his viability as a 2016 contender. At issue is whether Paul — like his father, Ron Paul, who ran for president three times — is a candidate who can only win the support of libertarian-leaning GOP voters, not a plurality or majority of the Republican electorate.

That question points to a major problem weighing the Republican leadership. The party is fractured. While it does not have the racial or demographic diversity of the Democratic Party, the GOP is comprised of a number of voting groups that overlap to varying degrees: moderates/reformers, establishment Republicans, religious conservatives, libertarian conservatives, and Tea Party conservatives.

As a number of recent presidential contenders have shown, including Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012, appealing to voters across these divides is no easy task, and, according to Silver, a nominee must build support in two, if not three, of those five groups. Appealing to a broad swath of GOP voters and the broader electorate is even more difficult.

Paul was elected to the Senate in 2010 on a wave of Tea Party conservatism, beating the establishment Republican candidate hand-picked by fellow Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell. But Paul’s political leanings run more toward libertarian conservatism. His position on certain social issues, including abortion, might turn off some voters who typically fall under the libertarian umbrella, those who hold liberal views on cultural issues and centrist positions on economic policy.

These voters, who once may have identified as Rockefeller Republicans, are now more likely to identify with the Democratic Party and independents. Moderate Republicans, who take more centrist positions on economic and social policy, have not completely been eliminated by the increasing polarization of American politics, but neither have they been entirely incorporated into the libertarian wing of the party.

Polling data show that in the 2012 Republican primary, approximately 30 percent of voters identified as moderate or liberal but did not vote for Ron Paul. Comparatively, 25 percent of similar voters in Florida voted for him. But, as Silver notes, no contender will be able to challenge Rand Paul for the loyalty of the libertarian faction. He also has a measure of credibility with the Tea Party and the ability to campaign like an establishment Republican.

In his analysis, Silver writes that Paul seems to “demonstrate the interest in expanding his support beyond libertarian conservative” voters. “That doesn’t make him as likely a nominee as a more traditional candidate like Mr. Rubio, Jeb Bush or Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin,” he said, writing for FiveThirtyEight. “But his odds look better than the 20-to-1 numbers that some bookmakers have placed against him.”

Is the Democratic Party leadership afraid of Paul?

“What it can tell you as a political observer is that [the Democratic Party] recognize[s] what we’re trying to point out, which is Rand is the Republican who has the best chance of keeping and energizing the base while going into their constituencies,” a senior aide for Rand Paul told The Daily Beast. “It’s blindingly obvious to [Democrats] that Rand is the Republican who can reach across the party.”

Paul’s primary asset is his commitment to making the GOP inclusive. “I think Republicans will not win again in my lifetime unless they become a new GOP, a new Republican Party,” Paul said during an interview with conservative radio host Glenn Beck earlier this year.

Paul has made no official statements regarding his intention to run for president, but on Monday, he embarked on a three-day, multi-city tour of Iowa, the state where the first presidential caucuses will be held in 17 months. The goal, of course, is to expand his base of support and solidify his platform.

His every move, every news conference given or speech made, has been cataloged and contextualized by the Democratic National Committee in a series of press releases. “His positions are quite scary,” said DNC spokesman Michael Czin said to The Daily Beast after being asked whether the party was intimated by Paul.

Other top Democrats within the party leadership opined that Paul is not trying to get out of the conservative box but redefine it. Paul demonstrated his intention of taking positions that would challenge traditional Republican responses when he blamed the administration of George W. Bush, particularly Dick Cheney, for the resurgence of sectarian violence in Iraq, not President Barack Obama.

“I don’t blame President Obama,” Paul told NBC News in June. “Has he really got the solution? Maybe there is no solution,” he said, noting that Obama’s critics, like Cheney, should look in the mirror.

Not many Democrats, including Democratic Party Communications Director Mo Elleithee, believe Paul can be a transformative presidential candidate.

As evidence, the DNC points to Paul’s changing positions on U.S. aid to Israel.

“Rand Paul can’t pretend that he never proposed ending the United States’ financial support for Israel. In 2011, Paul introduced a budget that would have eliminated all foreign aid for Israel; he even bragged about his position in multiple interviews and called such aid ‘welfare’ to a wealthy nation,” according to a DNC press release dated August 4.

Meanwhile, Paul told Yahoo News that he never “really proposed” cutting aid to Israel in the past. “We’ve never had a legislative proposal to do that. You can mistake my position, but then I’ll answer the question. That has not been a position — a legislative position — we have introduced to phase out or get rid of Israel’s aid,” he said. “That’s the answer to that question. Israel has always been a strong ally of ours and I appreciate that. I voted just this week to give money — more money — to the Iron Dome, so don’t mischaracterize my position on Israel.”

In 2011, Paul proposed a budget that would decrease the federal budget by $500 billion, partly by cutting off foreign aid to all countries, including Israel. Paul also took flack for avoiding a question on immigration at a fundraising event on Monday night.

Despite that poor press, Paul has introduced a plan — along with New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker — known as the REDEEM Act. That measure would fix the “cycle of poverty and incarceration,” according to Paul, by sealing or expunging the criminal records of juveniles and a number of other strategies.

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