Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is insistent he can spread the appeal of the GOP to young people with a foreign policy that sounds like President Obama on steroids (no drones without warrants, close Gitmo, contain Iran, laud Edward Snowden), drug reform/legalization and use of a bunch of pop culture references.
The problem for him is twofold. First, as we saw with his dash to dump his sympathetic language toward Vladimir Putin, there are far more voters (e.g. evangelicals, hawks, mainstream Republicans) he stands to lose on his libertarian positions than those he might entice. On Monday evening, after watching Paul tie himself up in knots all day on foreign policy, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) killed him with kindness, reminding voters, “We do not agree on everything, especially regarding foreign policy, but we have agreed on the vast majority of issues, and I am sure we will continue to do so.” Translation: He’ll be happy to take all those Rand Paul voters who don’t want an Obama-like foreign policy.
And second, aside from followers of Paul the Elder, there have not to date been enough young people that are staunchly libertarian – but are pro-life, defend traditional marriage, are ambivalent on immigration reform (he was for it before he voted against it) and are skeptical on federal civil rights legislation. Trapped between his leanings (e.g. accommodate Iran) and the political demands of his party (e.g. staunchly anti-Iran and pro-Israel), he risks coming across as nothing more than a phony politician trying to have it every which way.
For a politician forever running against Washington politicians, the worst thing to be is inauthentic. But what else can describe Paul’s on-again-off-again attachment to foreign policy toughness? My colleague Michael Gerson aptly observes: “Paul has been on the defensive, belatedly referring to Russia as a ‘rogue nation.’ And he has tried to claim credit for the fact that Western nations are not sending troops to the Crimean Peninsula — which no one has actually considered since the Crimean War ended in 1856. Paul is left to insist, ‘I’m a great believer in Ronald Reagan.’ This amounts to a serious concession, since Reagan would not have returned the compliment.”
To go a step further, which young people is Paul really going to win over? Not the students at Howard University. Not the 61 percent of young Republicans who favor gay marriage. (Paul has said countless times that he is for “traditional marriage,” but maybe he’ll come up with a new wrinkle.) His base of support sounds, frankly, like exactly the same, mostly white, mostly male libertarians his father attracted — in other words, the CPAC crowd.
And speaking of which, among CPAC voters 63 percent were male, 46 percent between 18 and 25 years, and 78 percent overwhelmingly radical libertarian (opposing the National Security Agency’s data collection program), Paul got less than a third of the vote. (There was no racial or ethnic identification, but from the crowds I would doubt if the minority component was more than 10 percent.) He’s never going to find a more sympathetic audience than CPAC and even there he gets only 31 percent of the vote? It is also noteworthy that the CPAC voting crowd has been declining steadily. (From 3,742 in 2011 to 3,408 in 2012 to 2,930 in 2013 to 2,459 this year.) The Rand Paul boom in young voters has yet to emerge.
To give you a sense of the presidential primary electorate, in 2012 in the Iowa caucuses, 57 percent of attendees were male, 15 percent were under 30 years and 57 percent were born-again and evangelical Christians. Not really the Rand Paul group. What about New Hampshire? In 2012 only 54 percent of GOP primary voters were male, 12 percent were under 30 and, while less than a quarter were evangelical, nearly 50 percent were self-described moderates.
Are there are hordes of pro-life, anti-NSA, anti-gay marriage white libertarian young males out there that Paul can bring into the primaries? Maybe he’s going to wow them at Howard University next time and finally widen his appeal on ethnic or racial lines. He might begin to expand his base by giving up some of his more extreme positions to reach moderates or to lure in evangelicals. (But anyone think the latter are going to believe he’s any better on Iran and Israel than Obama?) It is not readily apparent which constituencies are going to help Rand Paul win in small states, let alone large ones.
The central problem for him is that the GOP presidential electorate for decades has been older and conservative — not young and libertarian. Unless that radically changes or Paul does, he may be in for a rude awakening.