Rand Paul's Struggling Presidential Campaign

The Kentucky senator was supposed to be 2016’s most exciting candidate, but his bid is off to a rocky start.

Gary Cameron / Reuters

If anyone ought to be well positioned in the current, fractured Republican field, it’s Rand Paul. The Kentucky senator’s libertarian stances make him stand out from the pack, and his supporters were supposed to give him a solid base that he could expand by appealing to more traditional Republicans.

But instead, Paul seems to be flailing, and fighting for space in the crowded GOP landscape. He’s tied for fourth place in the average of national polls, fifth in Iowa, third in New Hampshire. His fundraising isn’t going well—he’s even been frozen out by the top donor to his father, the former Texas congressman Ron Paul. He’s struggling to earn the backing of his father’s rank and file supporters, as well. And while Rand Paul’s recent maneuvers in the Senate succeeded in derailing renewal of the Patriot Act, they also served to highlight the unpopularity of his national-security positions within his party—and the stunt got far less buzz than the 2013 filibuster that made him a hero to many conservatives.

Inside and around the campaign, there is a sense that things are not going as well as hoped for Paul, multiple sources told me. “They are in a challenging spot right now,” said one Republican operative with knowledge of the campaign. “They are having a hard time reaching out to new constituencies while keeping the base happy.” The problem, the operative said, is that Paul’s flip-flopping and triangulation have damaged his reputation for ideological purity. “Senator Paul appears, in the minds of Republicans, to have gone from a guy who was standing on principle, who wanted to do things, to a politician who wants to be something,” the operative said.

A different GOP strategist put it more succinctly to National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar, calling the Paul campaign “a disaster.”

Why is Paul having such a hard time? Partly it is because the crowded field he thought would give him an advantage includes several conservative candidates appealing to a similar pool of voters—from the firebrand Ted Cruz to social conservative Mike Huckabee to neurosurgeon Ben Carson. Partly it is the shifting landscape of key issues, which has put foreign policy front and center. (National security and terrorism recently became the No. 1 concern of GOP primary voters, and 57 percent of them want an approach that is more aggressive, not less, according to a recent Pew survey.) And partly it is a matter of flawed strategic assumptions—a campaign that believed it could build a coalition of different kinds of voters based on the candidate’s various facets is finding it may instead be a zero-sum game.

Just a few months ago, some were calling Paul the early frontrunner for the nomination. The many moderate and establishment-oriented candidates, Paul himself theorized, would split the party’s more traditional voters, allowing Paul to consolidate conservatives. Paul was by far the most aggressive candidate in building a campaign infrastructure, constructing a 50-state network that was in place more than a year ago. Meanwhile, he courted traditional big-money donors, schmoozing confabs like Mitt Romney’s Utah donor retreat as he sought to prove he was less of a loose cannon—some might say gadfly—than his father. In a March 2014 national poll of Republican primary voters, he placed first with 16 percent of the vote.

Paul started early because he was hoping to lock in support while other potential candidates were still making up their minds. He paid his first visits to Iowa and New Hampshire in the spring of 2013. He vigorously courted social conservatives with a message that linked personal liberty to religious liberty and emphasized his opposition to abortion. In the 2012 Iowa caucuses, Ron Paul came in third, with 21 percent of the vote; he came in second in New Hampshire, with 23 percent. Rand Paul’s advisers figured he would naturally appeal to those voters as the closest thing in the field to Ron Paul, and could quickly vault to the front by building on that base.

But polling averages now put Paul under 9 percent in Iowa and around 12 percent in New Hampshire. Paul gets 9 percent of the Republican primary vote nationally, on average, the same amount of support as Carson and behind Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Marco Rubio. Polls at this stage aren’t at all predictive of how the race will actually shake out, but they are a barometer of Republican activists’ current sentiment. What they show is that, despite Paul’s early organizational efforts and his supposed claim on liberty-minded Republicans, the percentage of voters ready to commit to him is small—and rather than building it up, he may be watching it shrink.

Ron Paul’s supporters, a finicky and purist bunch, have proved less transferable to Rand Paul than the campaign assumed. In Iowa, several prominent former Ron Paul supporters, including state Senator Jason Schultz, are backing Cruz. This week, the New York Times reported that Rand Paul was beginning to win over some formerly leery Ron Paul fans—a strikingly late conversion of a group he thought he could take for granted. Many Ron Paul supporters have been alienated by Rand Paul’s gestures to the establishment, particularly his partnership with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose reelection he endorsed and campaigned for last year. In blocking the reauthorization of the Patriot Act last week, Paul antagonized McConnell, but won points with libertarians for proving he could stand up to the leader.

Unlike Paul’s 2013 filibuster against drones, which brought him wide acclaim and highlighted his political creativity, his speech on surveillance last week was largely viewed as a political stunt aimed at thrusting him into the spotlight and goosing his lagging fundraising. That’s perhaps inevitable—Paul is a candidate now, as he wasn’t the last time—and perhaps unfair, as he has a long track record on the issue. But it highlights how his image has changed, from that of a passion-driven truth-teller, like his father, to that of a politically minded triangulator. Confronted with the accusation, Paul displayed another unfortunate tendency by lashing out at his critics, saying that those who oppose him “secretly want there to be an attack on the United States so they can blame it on me.” (He later backed off and acknowledged that the statement was “hyperbole.”)

Gaffes like these have convinced many GOP graybeards that Paul isn’t ready for prime time. And his attempts to penetrate the donor classes have not been well received. The billionaire Koch brothers are closely aligned with Paul philosophically, but they have reportedly not been impressed with his performance as a candidate and are disinclined to back him financially. Other big donors Paul has courted have decided to support other candidates instead, according to Politico, while the legion of small-dollar online donors who kept his father afloat have been less generous this time around.

The failure to enlist Peter Thiel, the enigmatic Silicon Valley venture capitalist who gave Ron Paul $2.6 million, has particularly shocked Paulworld. Jesse Benton, a longtime adviser to both Pauls who is now running the Rand Paul-boosting America’s Liberty super PAC, acknowledged that Thiel’s refusal was a blow. “From what I understand, he’s just got a little donor fatigue, and he’s sitting this one out for now,” Benton told me. “Obviously, we’re big fans of his, and we hope to get him back in the fold.”

Benton admitted the campaign has experienced some turbulence, but said that was to be expected. “Rand is not going to be the nominee by running a bland, status-quo campaign,” he said. “That’s Jeb Bush’s campaign to run. Rand’s path to the nomination is a Silicon Valley approach, a disruptive force in politics and the GOP that shakes things up and builds a new coalition going forward.” That’s an inherently difficult thing to do, Benton said, but he believes Paul is pulling it off, and “he continues to have as good a chance as anyone to win the nomination.”

Benton said the proportion of Ron Paul supporters not supporting Rand Paul was not significant. “In his father’s base, there is a small but loud group of folks who are really just contrarians,” he said.

Another Paul adviser, who spoke on condition his name not be used, said the candidate’s tribulations were part of a deliberate strategy to tackle head-on his perceived liabilities on foreign policy and national security. “I actually think exorcising those demons by fighting it out on those issues is an opportunity,” the adviser said. “You can’t fix a problem if you pretend it doesn’t exist. The problem is the perception”—that Paul is an isolationist or a pacifist, when his actual views are more nuanced. Paul’s stances on privacy and limiting foreign aid are popular with Republicans, the adviser added.

The adviser acknowledged there had been “some unfortunate distractions,” like the recent terror-attack remark. But he argued that Paul’s atonement for the remark showed maturity. “Look, Rand just has to be acceptable” to the broad majority of Republican voters, the adviser said. “That’s why [his opponents] all want to say he can’t be commander-in-chief, because they want to make him unacceptable.” Hence the $1 million attack ad, timed to his campaign launch, slamming Paul as “wrong and dangerous.”

The adviser pointed to Nevada’s recent decision to keep its presidential caucus, rather than changing to a primary, as evidence of Paul’s organizational muscle, and said Paul supporters are working to change the Virginia presidential primary to a nominating convention at meetings later this month.

Not long ago, Paul was widely hailed as the “most interesting man in politics.” His libertarian vision had the potential to broaden the Republican Party’s appeal to minorities and young people and to liberate the party’s image from the taint of George W. Bush’s presidency. In theory, his potential to remake the GOP and realign American politics was genuinely exciting. But in practice, so far, the reality has been a bit of a letdown.