Many people were expecting Rand Paul to be a serious contender for the Republican nomination. However, as of writing Paul averages at just 2.3% support according to Real Clear Politics. What the hell happened? Why is the “most interesting man in politics” struggling so badly?
A couple of (pre?) autopsy pieces came out today that try to explains it. First up is Jerry Taylor, the head of the newly launched Niskanen Center, who had a piece on FoxNews.com. He argues that the reason why Paul failed is because there never was a libertarian moment in the first place.
According to an August survey by the independent polling firm Eschelon Insights, far and away the most popular candidate nationwide among libertarian-inclined Republicans is Donald Trump, the least libertarian candidate in the race.
Libertarians who can’t stomach Trump scattered their support without any ideological rhyme or reason (11 percent for Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, 9 percent for Ted Cruz and John Kasich, 8 percent for Carly Fiorina, 7 percent for Paul).
The secret of Trump’s appeal to Paul’s base is that a large segment of the “Ron Paul Revolution” leavened its libertarianism with a pony keg of crazy. Birthers, 9/11 Truthers, a wide assortment of conspiracy theorists (many of whom believe the Federal Reserve to be a modern manifestation of the Illuminati), and naked racists rivaled the number of reasonably sober libertarian-ish voters among the faithful.
Very little I can disagree with here. Way back in 2007, we were making the point that many people in the Ron Paul rEVOLution were part of the wacko fringe. Taylor’s description of many (but not all) Ron Paul supporters is dead on. You have nutcases in every political movement, but the rEVOLution seemed to attract more of them than usual. Rand to his credit has refused to pander to these people, for the most part. It would also be dishonest to say Ron Paul himself agreed with these fringe nutters, but he hasn’t been as hostile to them as Rand.
The only thing I would point out is the libertarian(ish) vote comes in many different variations. If Libertarians (capitalized intentionally) don’t agree on everything, why should we expect libertarian-leaning Republicans?
Taylor goes on to make a few points that I have to disagree with, at least partially.
Sure, one can argue that Paul has run a sub-par campaign and that a more adroit effort would have produced better results. But given the above, it is hard to argue, as some do, that Paul would have done better had he run as more of a libertarian.
If real libertarian votes were there for the taking, someone would have come along and done the harvesting.
If there was truly a $20 (electoral) bill lying on the sidewalk, it’s hard to believe that none of the other 14 starving candidates would bother to pick it up.
Let me start with where I agree with Taylor. I do believe that the “libertarian vote” has been overstated. Only 7% of the American electorate is libertarian according to the Public Religion Institute poll Taylor cited. If the libertarian vote was a major factor in American politics, the Libertarian Party would be a major party.
However, another 15% of American voters lean libertarian. For example, the author is a “libertarian leaner” but not a full blown libertarian. Also, 12% of the Republican party’s voters are libertarian. The problem is that they may not be doctrinaire libertarians. Those generally join the Libertarian Party and we see how well it performs. The libertarian(ish) votes are there, Paul failed to grab them.
Which brings me to the second piece of this series, one by Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post. He lays out four reasons why Paul failed.
- The libertarian strain in the GOP peaked in 2014.
- Paul’s move to court the establishment cost him among libertarians.
- Paul has been a very weak fundraiser.
- Rand hasn’t been a good candidate.
I would add a fifth reason which is an extremely poor campaign that seemed to lack a basic, consistent strategy. First they were going to fight nationwide. Then, New Hampshire became must win. The new strategy is to get some wins in other caucus states. Problem is, the first ones don’t vote until March 1. Ask President Rudy Guiliani how waiting until after the early states vote to get your first victory works out.
Two of the four reasons Cillizza pointed out would’ve been mitigated by Paul being a better candidate. Paul would’ve been better able to sell a more non-interventionist foreign policy and been able to raise the money if he was a better candidate. Taylor’s article points out a large reason why Paul lost his dad’s base. However, if Paul was a better communicator, he could’ve better reconciled his more pragmatic viewpoints with hardcore libertarianism. Instead, he got the reputation that he’s a flip-flopper. Finally, Paul just didn’t communicate to voters on things they were interested in.
Does this mean that libertarians should give up on politics? Nope. Instead of libertarians should realize that the market for hardcore libertarianism is very limited. Most people are not inclined to support laissez faire economics, believe America should have a foreign presence, and are willing to accept state controls of some behavior. That’s fine.
Instead, libertarians should focus on coalition building and advancing libertarian policies pragmatically. That involves showing a willingness to compromise. Finally, it may involve grabbing the “low-hanging fruit” of policy instead of big ticket items such as the ending the Federal Reserve which appeal to libertarians, but have very little interest to the average citizen.
Now of course Rand Paul may turn things around and make the most improbable of comebacks. However, if he doesn’t this will provide many valuable lessons to be learned. Will libertarians learn them?