Rand Paul: Master of Political Message-Switching

In his speeches, Paul shows how good he is at tailoring his message to fit his audience. But that could come back to bite him as he goes national.

Sen. Rand Paul is something of a political shape-shifter. That is not to say he's a hypocrite; what it does mean is that Paul is, perhaps singularly in the field of potential 2016 contenders, an expert at tailoring his message to the audience he is trying to win over.

Just review the speeches he's given to different crowds over the past year. You'll find that the tone remains consistent, along with a few catchphrases—"a man coming over the hill singing," e.g.—but the substance of his speeches varies almost completely.

Even his literary references run the gamut. Paul, who has been described as a "voracious reader," often quotes from novels in his speeches—a departure from the Bible-and-Founding-Fathers set of quotables that most politicians reheat in every speech. And it's pretty easy to figure out why he quotes what he does where he does.

When he spoke to black students at Howard University in the spring of 2013, Paul referenced the work of one of its most famous alumni.

"I take to heart the words of Toni Morrison of Howard University, who wrote: 'If there is a book you really want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it,'" Paul told the Howard audience. "I can recite books that have been written, or I can plunge into the arena and stumble and maybe fall, but at least I will have tried."

Speaking at the University of California, Berkeley in March, he quoted a passage from Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 to draw a parallel to surveillance by the National Security Agency.

"If you own a cell phone, you are under surveillance," he went on to tell the Berkeley crowd. "I believe what you do on your cell phone is none of their damn business." The crowd whooped. It's a line he repeated at the Conservative Political Action Conference, to similar applause (he also quoted Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here" to CPAC's mostly white audience).

And while speaking at the Values Voter Summit in September, Paul referenced The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, who was a physician and a devout Catholic. "Walker Percy laments in The Moviegoer that we've left no room for the seeker," Paul told the Values Voter audience. "Maybe our country's revival depends on seeking and rediscovering the synthesis of freedom and tradition."

Paul doesn't just alter his cultural touchstones to fit his audience; he often completely switches up the set of policies he talks about. What Paul understands is that varying his stump-speech material isn't just about pandering to local accents, sports teams, and delicacies; it's about broaching subjects that matter to specific subsets of voters.

And he's markedly improved over the past year. Read the transcript of his 2013 Howard speech, and you can understand why some students felt he was condescending to them—half of the speech is Paul lecturing his audience about the history of the Republican Party's relationship to black voters. Compare that tone with his National Urban League speech from this July, in which he simply addresses issues he thinks will matter to his audience and empathizes with them; it's a much more successful technique.

In front of a majority-black crowd, he touts sentencing reform, voting rights, school choice, and Economic Freedom Zones. In front of a Christian conservative crowd, he'll talk about the sanctity of life. In front of a tea-party crowd, he'll get them fired up about repealing Obamacare.

Paul doesn't just tailor his message in pre-written speeches; he can do it off the cuff, too. When he appeared on Fox News to criticize the NSA, he used Fox's core audience as a jump-off point for his argument that the NSA's surveillance violates the Fourth Amendment.

"Let's say you call up [a judge] and you say, 'I want all the records of all the Republicans who live in Texas.' My guess is, then the judge will say no. So it's a great protection," Paul told John Stossel.

The speech that he gives to a group of black college students will be rhetorically similar to the speech he gives to a crowd of white conservative retirees; but the issues he talks about will be almost entirely different.

For comparison, here are his applause lines from a variety of recent events:

  • At the Values Voter Summit: "As Christians, we should always stand with the most defenseless. I believe that no civilization can long endure that does not respect life from the not-yet-born to life's last breath. The debate isn't really about whether government has a role in protecting life. The debate really hinges on when life begins. I've held one-and-a-half pound babies in my hand. I've seen them sucking their thumb on an ultrasound, and I've seen surgeons operate on babies still in the womb. So don't tell me that five- and six-pound babies have no rights simply because they're not born."

  • At the National Urban League Conference: "Anyone who thinks that race does not still—even if inadvertently—skew the application of criminal justice, is just not paying close attention. Whether you are a minority because of the color of your skin or by virtue of your political or religious persuasion, it's imperative that we restrain the power of the majority."

  • At Berkeley: "The Republican Party needs to either evolve, adapt, or die. ... Remember when Domino's finally admitted they had bad crust? Think Republican Party. Admit it: bad crust. We need a different kind of party."

Of course, this type of message-tailoring is something every politician does to some extent (the successful ones, at least). There's even a linguistic term for this sort of message shift: code-switching. It's something we all do—the way you tell a story to your friend over beers will come out differently than when you're telling it to your grandma over Skype.

As Christopher Beam wrote in Slate in 2010, President Obama has long been accused of "code-switching" when he speaks to white audiences versus black audiences. Example A is "Cousin Pookie," a well-worn stereotype of "ghetto" culture that Obama brings up when talking to predominantly black crowds about voter turnout.

"I think that there's a certain black idiom that it's hard not to slip into when you're talking to a black audience because of the audience response. It's the classic call and response. Anybody who's spent time in a black church knows what I mean. And so you get a little looser; it becomes a little more like jazz and a little less like a set score," Obama told NPR in 2007.

Similarly, when Hillary Clinton was a senator for New York, she affected a Southern drawl while speaking to a Southern audience. On the campaign trail in 2007, Clinton poked fun at herself, saying, "I think America is ready for a multilingual president."

But political code-switching isn't just a matter of changing how you talk; it's what you choose to talk about, to whom.

And, especially in the YouTube era, it's a strategy that can come back to bite you. From Slate:

The practice famously got [Obama] into trouble during the campaign when he told an audience at a San Francisco fundraiser that in small-town Pennsylvania, some people "get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them." No doubt he would have phrased the sentiment differently in small-town Pennsylvania.

Paul could fall victim to a similar slip of the tongue. By trying to connect with one audience, you will almost inevitably alienate another. Will Paul face his own "cling to their guns" moment? You could argue that he already has, having faced criticism for his slippery foreign policy stances.

To some, it may seem like pandering. But those well-versed in the morass of politics will recognize it as a necessary strategy to make different subsets of voters feel included and represented. There's a word for that, too: campaigning.