Rand Paul 2016: Front-runner or overrated?

Sen. Rand Paul has won several recent straw polls and surveys, and his brand of libertarianism seems to be on the rise in his party. But anointing him the early GOP front-runner for 2016 may be going too far.

Mike Theiler/Reuters
Senator Rand Paul (R) of Kentucy waves as he arrives onstage, wearing blue jeans and cowboy boots, to deliver remarks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Oxon Hill, Maryland, March 7, 2014.

Is Rand Paul really the front-runner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination? There’s some chatter to that effect at the moment among Washington’s pundit class. It was sparked by last weekend’s victory for the Kentucky senator in another straw poll, this one at the Northeast Republican Leadership Conference. Then CNN/ORC released a poll on Sunday with Senator Paul leading the list of potential nominees for GOP and GOP-leaning voters.  

As CNN notes, that’s a feat that Paul’s father, Ron Paul, never accomplished in all his years running for president.

Plus, Paul is already making good use of his father’s base of committed donors, notes Washington Post political expert Chris Cillizza. He’s done well in the early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire. Paul’s brand of libertarianism seems to be on the rise in his party, particularly among young Republicans.

“It’s past time people start taking him seriously as a potential Republican nominee,” Mr. Cillizza writes.

Well, sure. Paul himself seems intent on making a serious run. Where his father’s presidential efforts seemed more purely ideological, based on promoting the libertarian brand, Paul is doing the sort of stuff you do if you actually plan on trying to win the thing. Thus he’s established an alliance of sorts with the very establishment Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, his fellow Kentuckian.

But taking him seriously is one thing. Articles anointing him the early front-runner may be going too far.

For instance, if you look closely at that CNN/ORC survey, Paul “won” by being the choice of 16 percent of respondents. Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin was right on his heels with 15 percent – and Representative Ryan’s standing jumped more than Paul’s, when compared with a similar CNN poll from January.

The poll’s margin of error was 3.5 percentage points. So actually, Paul and Ryan tied. Gov. Rick Perry (R) of Texas, who scored 11 percent of respondents, and former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, at 10 percent, were both within the margin of error, too. So technically it was a four-way tie.

Also, it was one poll. The RealClearPolitics rolling average of major surveys has Mr. Huckabee narrowly leading Paul, 13.7 to 13 percent.

Furthermore, money won’t be an issue for most serious GOP contestants, argues Salon’s Alex Pareene. So Paul’s fundraising base may be of only marginal benefit. Iowa and New Hampshire are influential early-voting states, but not necessarily indicative: Rick Santorum got the most votes in Iowa in 2012, for instance. Libertarianism may be growing within the GOP, but it is still far from controlling the party.

Then there’s Paul and foreign policy. He is decidedly non-interventionist, a position that is at odds with the party’s recent heritage. At the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this month (where Paul won the straw vote), Paul’s speech was all about civil liberties and National Security Agency abuses. Other speakers talked about Ukraine and the need to stand up Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Political scientist Jonathan Bernstein argues that Paul is out of step with both neoconservatives and realists, two strong GOP factions. “Out of step” might be understating it: He’s way out of their mainstream.

That means Paul is not only not the front-runner; he may not be an acceptable party nominee.

“I could be wrong – and we’re not talking Rudy Giuliani levels of impossibility here, or even Newt Gingrich ones – but unless some solid evidence turns up that Republican foreign policy types find him acceptable, I still don’t think he’s a viable candidate,” Mr. Bernstein writes in his BloombergView column.

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