In an interview with talk show host Sean Hannity, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) sounded more equivocal about a presidential run than at any time in the last year or so: “If the ideas are resonating — if the ideas look like they have a chance — then it’s much more likely that I’ll make a go of this. If it looks like we’re at 1 percent, we’re not in the top tier, and it’s just going to be a quixotic sort of run, then I think it’s not something I want to do just for educational purposes. I would do it to be in to win. And that’s a decision we’re going to have to make later in the spring.” It is not clear if he meant 1 percent literally.
Well right now, he’s at 8.6 percent in the RealClearPolitics national average, behind Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and Paul Ryan. Is that the first tier? (At the time of the last national poll, Mike Huckabee had not yet left Fox News nor made an affirmative move toward running.) We have noted that Paul has declined steadily over the last year as his stances on foreign policy and policing have fallen out of favor. And this is before rivals take him on for sitting down with Al Sharpton, refusing to repudiate his view to cut aid to Israel (and everyone else) and siding with President Obama on the Menendez-Kirk Iran sanctions. In short, his poll numbers are heading in the wrong direction and his ideas in key areas are not resonating — at least not among Republicans.
The stakes for Paul, however, are quite high. State law currently would not allow him to run for both the presidency and for reelection to the Senate, although he vows to challenge that law in court if need be. The danger aside from losing his Senate seat is that his facade of popularity and influence could collapse once he encounters real voters in diverse settings. He might prove to be only as popular as his father. Better to keep the pretense alive that he is more mainstream and respectable than Paul the Elder? Perhaps.
Moreover, Iowa could be tricky for him, for at least two reasons.
It appears the Iowa straw poll won’t vanish. An e-mail from the Iowa state party chairman strongly hints that although there will be a final decision by the party’s central committee Saturday, reports of the straw poll’s demise are greatly exaggerated. (“Regular citizens, without title or privilege, who are unafraid to look a powerful politician in the eye and ask tough questions. . . . And, for over three-plus decades, a process that includes a voluntary poll taken at a major Iowa GOP August fundraiser showcasing presidential candidates. . . . In discussions with senior RNC officials, including legal counsel, it was crystal clear that the Iowa GOP’s inclusion of a straw poll in an August 2015 fundraising event does not violate those new rules, nor place in jeopardy our status as the lead-off state in the presidential nomination process.”) Some Iowan Republicans would rather it disappear, arguing that it gets disproportionate attention and eliminates candidates prematurely (Minnesota ex-governor Tim Pawlenty) while rewarding flaky candidates (Rep. Michele Bachmann).
Why would a straw poll be problematic for Paul specifically? He very well could come in behind a long list of candidates including Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson and Rick Santorum. For a candidate with elevated expectations, a bad finish could be fatal (as Pawlenty found out).
Second, Paul has gotten on poorly with evangelicals, tangling with them over foreign policy and doing poorly in an informal straw poll of value voters. As a series of foreign policy disasters and Islamic jihadist threats have intensified, his stance on a number of national security issues (e.g. limiting the war against the Islamic State, the use of drones and data mining) become even more difficult to sustain. In addition, his “let the states decide” stance on gay marriage, while entirely reasonable and perhaps inevitable, is a sore spot with religious voters. And Christian conservative voters are such a significant force in the caucuses, Paul’s prospects there may have dimmed considerably. That would be true in Iowa, but to a certain extent in other early primary states like South Carolina. It is far from clear that Paul will be able to make up for votes in Iowa or elsewhere that he will not get from traditional Republicans.
In short, if Paul has become more hesitant about a presidential run there is plenty of justification. Does he roll the dice on the presidency, risking a Senate seat and his status as a prominent player in the eyes of the MSM? That will be the question he will face in a few months. Unless he can do a major damage control effort with evangelicals, the answer might well be no.