Why Rand Paul Can't Win the Republican Nomination

His heterodox views on foreign policy are badly out of step with an increasingly hawkish party.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Gaylord International Hotel and Conference Center March 7, 2014 in National Harbor, Maryland. (National Journal)

Throughout 2014, many Republican strategists quietly worried about the prospect of Rand Paul winning the GOP presidential nomination, thanks to his unconventional foreign policy views. As the thinking went, he could prevail in a divided Republican primary thanks to his committed supporters and the GOP's renewed focus on fiscal issues where he's aligned with the party rank and file. Against Hillary Clinton, however, his noninterventionist ideology would be a nonstarter in a general election. But with the international stage turning more dangerous, Republicans may have unwittingly found a solution to their problem.

As Paul aggressively prepares for a presidential campaign, his odds of winning the GOP nomination have never looked longer. With ISIS amassing territory in the Middle East, Russia remaining belligerent against Ukraine and the threat of a nuclear Iran growing, the public has taken a decidedly hawkish turn. The second-most-important issue for Americans is the defeat of ISIS, according to the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, jumping up in significance in recent months. Republicans, in particular, favor a more aggressive response to tackling terrorism. A 53 percent majority of Republicans told Quinnipiac they supported ground troops to fight terrorism in Iraq, even though 55 percent of voters overall were against it. The party ran on a muscular foreign policy in the 2014 midterms, and elected several outspoken hawks, including Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Joni Ernst of Iowa.

Even in Iowa, a dovish state where Paul holds strong favorability ratings, the appetite for increased military interventionism against ISIS is high. In a new Bloomberg survey, nearly half of Republicans ranked "more aggressively pursuing terrorists" as a leading issue out of 10 tested, ranking a close second behind repealing Obamacare.

But as the country is taking a hawkish turn, Paul has instead veered to the left. He's the only Senate Republican opposing the reimplementation of tough sanctions on Iran, cosponsoring a less-punitive alternative bill with liberal Sen. Barbara Boxer. He's one of the few Republicans to support President Obama's push to normalize relations with Cuba, making him the only Republican presidential candidate to take that position. When he spoke to an ostensibly friendly, libertarian-minded audience at the Koch-backed Freedom Partners summit last month, Paul received a cool reception for his foreign policy views while Sen. Marco Rubio's more-hawkish views received an enthusiastic response.

Paul's positions have become so out-of-step with the Republican electorate that even those who agree with him on foreign policy are sounding bearish about his chances. "If we are being honest, the 2014 election re-empowered and reinvigorated the party's hawks," correspondent Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote in The Week.

If the election was taking place in 2008, with a war-weary public, Paul's views might be getting more traction. Or if foreign policy was playing a secondary role in politics, as it did throughout Obama's first term, Paul's path to the nomination would be a little clearer. But even Paul understands the political reality of running as a dove in a hawkish party. Last September, he wrote an op-ed in Time magazine declaring he "was not an isolationist" in the wake of newfound terrorist threats—saying he would have acted more "strongly and decisively against ISIS" than Obama. More recently, however, he's been abandoning the pose that his noninterventionism constitutes toughness.

To be sure, there's a small but vocal constituency within the GOP that favors Paul's cautious positioning on foreign policy. Despite his heterodox views, Paul still holds strong favorability ratings among Republican voters. And in such a crowded field, a candidate who can build up a strong, reliable core of supporters will have a shot to win the nomination. He could conceivably get traction by pressing more-hawkish GOP candidates on whether they support sending troops to the Middle East—a position that draws less support, but still majority backing among Republicans.

Yet it's still telling how most of his Republican opponents aren't even hedging their bets on a more assertive American foreign policy. On ABC's This Week, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker bolstered his hawkish bona fides by declaring support for American troops being deployed into Syria if necessary to defeat ISIS. This week, Rubio led Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearings decrying the president's policy in Cuba. Jeb Bush has laid out a foreign policy vision that sounds awfully similar to his brother's, calling for sustained American engagement across the globe. It's hard to find any Republicans who don't sound like George W. Bush on the subject.

In 2008, when the public's opposition to the Iraq War was near its peak and George W. Bush held record-low approval ratings, the Republican primary field barely broke with the president. John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson, and Mike Huckabee all toed the party line, with Ron Paul the lone outlier. And despite receiving outsized attention that year, Paul received only 5.6 percent of the overall presidential primary vote.

Rand Paul is certainly running a more professional, mainstream campaign than his father, but he will still face a ceiling among GOP voters who won't support him over foreign policy.

There was a time when Paul could have prevailed despite being out of step with his party on a key issue. It's a challenge, for example, that Jeb Bush faces on Common Core and Rubio faces on immigration. But with voters recoiling from rising terrorism overseas, it's a subject that Paul can't easily spin away or hope enough Republican voters will ignore. With Obama now receiving his lowest approval ratings on foreign policy, Paul risks being aligned with the president at a time when GOP voters want a dramatic course correction.