Tea Party and the Right

Shockingly, Rand Paul Could be the GOP Nominee and Trouble for the Dems

Young male voters are drawn to Libertarian positions on social issues.

U.S. Senator Rand Paul speaking at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference.
Photo Credit: Shutterstock, Copyright (c) Christopher Halloran

In 2008, Barack Obama was the candidate of change, first for Democrats and then the nation. For 2016, those same political stars, to be the agent of change, appear to be lining up behind Rand Paul, Kentucky’s Republican U.S. senator.

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Yes, that Rand Paul, who is more accurately labeled as a shrink-the-government Libertarian and has a long history of questionable statements on race. Just as there are signs that Americans are not enthralled by Hillary Clinton’s likely return to the presidential fold (In June, it was Monica Lewinsky; in July, it’s her book), there are signs that Paul is pulling ahead of better-known Republican rivals.

It’s not just that Paul is the clear frontrunner in a new and credible national poll. He has supporters across every key GOP demographic by age and faction, from Tea Partiers to corporate America to the religious right. Younger men, who aren’t likely to vote for Clinton, find his "maverick" personality new and appealing. Similarly, the millennial generation is superficially embracing the Libertarian idea that the government should leave them alone to do as they please. Marijuana laws are one example.      

“This guy can win the nomination,” pollster John Zogby said Friday, adding he did not have that view until he took a deeper look at a June 27-29 nationwide survey he conducted. Paul was not only in first place with 20 percent in a crowded field of 10, he had deeper support than “establishment” Republicans. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and ex-Florida Jeb Bush each polled at 13 percent. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker had 8 percent, while Florida Sen. Marco Rubio had 7 percent. Five others had even less support. Other national polls put Paul in the lead, but Zogby has him clearly out front.

“When you see him get up to 20 percent, and especially against the best know names of the party, and that his appeal is across the board… there is some depth there,” Zogby said. “He transcends the debate that’s going on in the Republican Party by appealing ideologically [to its factions]. He comes off as pure Libertarian in some respects. If you are anti-interventionist, he’s got that piece. If you are pro-First Amendment, he’s got that piece. If you are pro-Second Amendment, he’s got that piece… Like his dad [Libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul] he’s pro-life, but he doesn’t wear it on his sleeve.”

Both George W. Bush and Mitt Romney were anti-abortion as well, but avoided making that stance a centerpiece of their presidential campaigns. Indeed, the religious right faction of the GOP will not allow a pro-choice candidate to be a presidential nominee, knowing full well the power of appointing anti-abortion federal judges and issuing executive orders to impose limits on birth control and sex education.

Zogby would not go so far as to say that Paul could beat Clinton, but he cited precedents where Democrats who portrayed their nomination and presidency as inevitable ended up losing. The foremost example is Clinton herself from 2007-'08, when her top consultants wrote elaborate papers envisioning her election, transition team and inauguration. But there are others, such as Walter Mondale in 1984, who, like Clinton, polled over 50 percent for months, got the nomination, but eventually lost to Ronald Reagan.

Paul is not new to presidential politics. His father, Texas Congressman Ron Paul, has run for president three times, twice as a Republican and once as a Libertarian. In 2012, Ron Paul finished in the top three in Iowa and New Hampshire. Rand Paul was active in that campaign, and has a base in those states.   

Right now, there is no official 2016 Clinton for President campaign, so no one close to her can comment on a potential matchup with Paul. There’s a Ready For Hillary PAC, which is drumming up support among the party’s top elected leaders and key constituencies. But there are many reasons why Paul could beat her in 2016, especially if Democrats don’t understand his appeal and take it seriously. (Incidentally, many top Clinton and Obama campaign aides worked for the favorite, Democrat Jack Conway, who Paul beat in the 2010 Senate race.)

Nationally, Paul is best known as a maverick who is not afraid to take edgy stances, more than for specific positions. Zogby said that ambiguous reputation is somewhat akin to the appeal Sen. John McCain had in 2008, when people liked his break-the-mold candidacy and overlooked his long warmongering. Jimmy Carter had a similar appeal in 1976, when, after winning some primaries, voters didn’t know if he truly was for or against abortion rights. “He’s this year’s version of the guy who doesn’t take it from anyone,” Zogby said, which was especially appealing to young men and independents. “When there’s enough of a candidate that you like, you project yourself onto that candidate.”   

In many respects, Paul—like Obama in 2007 and 2008—is that blank screen. In contrast, older voters recall the Clinton White House. They remember the scandals, the real ones and those fabricated by the GOP. Hillary Clinton isn’t quite a candidate of change, nor does she represent continuity, Zogby said. In contrast, he said younger men are attracted to Paul’s free-market ideas, just as younger women do not seem spooked by his anti-abortion beliefs as they were with numerous Republicans in 2012, from Rick Santorum to Todd Akin.

Zobgy is nationally known for his political research on millennials, who today are in their 20s. While they overwhelmingly tended to vote for Democrats in 2012, they tend to be socially liberal and economically conservative. More than 40 percent take Libertarian stances on specific issues, Zobgy said, pointing to a recent poll by the Rupe Foundation and Reason.com, a Libertarian website, that found the same results. Seven percent identified as Libertarians, but 37 percent said that government was doing too much that’s “better left to business and individuals.” 

In recent weeks, Paul has tried to make inroads into the African-American communities, sponsoring a bill to restore some ex-felons’ voting rights. Last weekend, Georgia Powers, an African-American woman who was elected to the Kentucky State Senate in 1968 and served for 21 years, wrote an op-ed in the Louisville Courier-Journal urging civil rights activists not to be fooled by Paul’s apparent conversion.  

“You must earn our community’s trust and support,” Powers said. “We don’t give it freely. We especially don’t give it to leaders who shake our hands while spitting in our faces.”

Powers described what Paul’s Libertarian positions mean. Paul like to says he abhors discrimination, but Powers noted that he opposes anti-discrimination legislation like the Civil Rights Act and he said the Voting Rights Act did not need to be renewed. Paul opposes fair housing laws, minimum wage increases and wants to repeal Obamacare, she said, and he wants to cut food stamps, expand charter schools and voted against the Violence Against Women Act. He supports high interest rates on student loans and stricter voter ID laws. And one Senate aide—his book’s ghostwriter, Jack Hunter—has been in pro-Confederate hate groups, Powers said, citing the Southern Poverty Law Center’s research.

When asked how these stances, which would hurt women and low-income people of color, might play out with key voting blocks such as younger women, Zogby said  Paul is deliberately vague. He avoids talking about contraception and never cites the Bible, he said. “He’s not going to scare the bejesus out of young women."

In recent weeks, Paul has taken other stances that are bound to raise eyebrows among his ideological supporters. He's shifted from his isolationist foreign policy to supporting the use of drones to go after anti-American terrorists overseas. 

Meanwhile, the atmosphere around the unofficial Clinton campaign is one of inevitability, as she hovers in the mid-60s in polls, 50 points ahead of Vice-President Joe Biden. Zogby said that lead was not just off-putting to many voters, it also seemed to ignore what’s new and changing in the country’s electorate, especially among 20-something voters. The New York Times has noted similar trends—youth leaning to the right, because they don’t see Obama succeeding and don’t remember the Bush presidency.

“They think everything is screwed up,” Zogby said. “The free market, interestingly, is the fresh idea that’s out there. Because they argue, ‘Gee, it hasn’t been tried.’ ‘Don’t say the free market has failed.’ ‘When have we had a pure free market.’ That argument is very appealing to millennials, because they are very anti-institution. And they really fear encroachment. They don’t hate government, but they fear encroachment. And so Libertarianism and free-market capitalism is very appealing. It’s more appealing now than it has been.”

Zogby says he sees little evidence that Hillary Clinton’s circle of advisors understands this cultural shift. And when challenged with how millennials can fear encroachment when their generation is the one that’s surrendering its privacy on its digital devices, Zogby replied, “Their motto is, ‘federal government, stay away from privacy. I’ll screw it up myself.’ They want the freedom to screw up their lives.”

A Rand Paul presidential ticket, let alone a Rand Paul presidency, would certainly achieve that.       

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).