Kentucky Senator and Tea Party favorite Rand Paul will not win the 2016 presidential election. Much has been made recently of Paul’s surge of popularity. He won his second consecutive straw poll at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) and he tops the list of potential Republican presidential candidates according to polls cited by CNN and USA Today. He has even drawn praise from reliably liberal commentators such as Bill Maher who complemented Paul on his views regarding foreign policy. Despite all this positive attention however, Rand Paul will not be president after the 2016 elections.
The first main reason to believe this is that the sources from which Paul is drawing most of his support to date do not indicate that he has the broad support necessary to prevail in a general election. He commands the loyalty of libertarians that idolize his father, former Texas Representative Ron Paul, but as Ron’s failed presidential campaigns showed, that is far from sufficient to win an election. Rand Paul is also very popular with the Tea Party movement, but the support of that group may be split between Paul and other favorites of the movement such as Texas Senator Ted Cruz, should he choose to enter the race as well.
The kind words of liberals such as Bill Maher are also meaningless in terms of measuring Paul’s overall support. Maher may admire the foreign policy positions taken by Paul. He may also view Paul as a legitimate threat to potential Democrat candidates like Hillary Rodham Clinton. He is not going to vote for Paul when election day rolls around, however. Maher and other liberal commentators may identify with components of Paul’s agenda, or even admire some of his policy positions, but they will not vote for him. They will vote for the Democratic candidate, whether that turns out to be Mrs. Clinton or someone else. This is just one more reason why Rand Paul will not win the 2016 presidential election.
The polls that have Rand Paul leading potential candidates only measure his appeal versus other Republicans. They are not a measurement against possible general election opponents like Clinton. There is little reason to believe that despite his rising popularity among Republicans and conservatives that this will translate into significant gains among traditionally non-Republican voting groups. Paul himself has acknowledged this to a degree, arguing that the Republican Party must do more to reach outside its traditional constituencies and build a broader electoral base. This was one of the highlights of his CPAC speech.
What Rand Paul could end up doing is triggering a shift in the Republican Party similar to what occurred in the 1964 presidential election. In that year, the Republicans engaged in a “civil war” of sorts between a more conservative wing of the party represented by Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, and a more moderate faction represented by New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. The ensuing “battle” between the two camps was eventually won by Goldwater and led in part to the emergence of the conservative ideology that embodied the Republican Party for the next fifty years. Paul may be able to trigger a similar debate within the Republican Party today. Many commentators have already pointed to the potential divide between libertarians and their Tea Party supporters and the “institutional” wing of the Republican Party.
Goldwater was soundly defeated by President Lyndon Johnson in the general election however, so in a sense Goldwater’s candidacy demonstrated a fear that Republicans still hold to this day. If they nominate a candidate who is “too conservative,” they surrender any chance of victory in the general election. This is another reason Rand Paul will not be president after the 2016 election. He and other newcomers like Ted Cruz may believe that they can operate outside the “institutional” support structures of the Republican Party, but those structures can also provide significant obstacles to their candidacy. Influential politicians, donors, and lobbyists will not sit idly by and allow a Paul or Cruz candidacy that they believe is doomed to fail in the general election.
Rand Paul may accomplish many things in terms of advancing the political debate in the United States. One thing he will not do however is win the 2016 presidential election.
Editorial by Christopher V. Spencer