At the beginning of the year when people asked me which of the umpteen Republican candidates running for president actually had a shot at the nomination, Rand Paul was the second or third name out of my mouth.
My thinking went like this: (1) Paul was the inheritor of the libertarian political legacy of his father, former congressman (and three-time presidential candidate) Ron Paul (2) That meant he would have real organizations in Iowa and New Hampshire, not to mention the capacity to raise tens of millions of dollars (3) He was reaching out to the establishment in ways his father never did, meaning that if he did look like the nominee, people wouldn't throw their bodies in the way to keep him from it.
Boy, did things play out differently.
On Friday, a Pew poll came out that showed Paul at 2 percent, which put him in tie for seventh place with former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. Earlier this week, Paul announced he had raised a meager $2.5 million over the last three months — a total dwarfed by one-time long shots like Ben Carson ($20 million) and Bernie Sanders ($26 million.)
"He is out of money," said Republican strategist Ed Rollins of Paul. "His ideas are not taking hold, and he is the odd man out in the presidential debates."
Even the most loyal Paul allies admit that things have not gone according to plan — although they argue that he's already bottomed out and is on his way back. "Our fundraising was at twice the rate [after the CNN debate in September] as it was before," said Doug Stafford, chief strategist for Paul's campaign. "Our organizations and crowds in the early states are doing nothing but getting larger."
So, okay. In a race in which Donald Trump is in the lead and Jeb Bush is at 4 percent — that's the state of affairs in that new Pew poll — anything is possible, up to and including a Paul comeback.
But, there's plenty of reasons to think it won't happen — and many of those reasons also explain why Paul hasn't lived up to his potential in the race so far. Let's go through them.
1. The libertarian strain in the GOP peaked in 2014. The rise of the Islamic State and the group's high-profile beheadings and burnings stopped the momentum that seemed to be growing behind a less hawkish national security and foreign policy approach to the world within the GOP. Suddenly, the views that Paul held, which seemed poised to move closer to the mainstream of the GOP in 2016, were back at the fringes. And he was stuck running on a message that felt like it's time had come and gone — or never really come at all.
2. Paul's move to court the establishment cost him among libertarians. The theory of Rand was that he would have all of his dad's support among libertarians AND enough support from the establishment to keep himself relevant throughout the early-state votes. Didn't happen that way. Instead, Paul not only proved unable to convince any real chunk of the establishment to be for him but also wound up alienating parts of his libertarian base who didn't like that he was trying to move beyond them. Lose-lose.
3. Paul has been a very weak fundraiser. He's been in the race since April and has raised a total of $7 million. How bad is that? Consider that Ron Paul raised $8 million in this same fundraising quarter in 2011 despite the fact that no one thought he had any chance of winning. Part of Rand's problem is, per point No. 2 above, he doesn't feel as much like a "cause" candidate as his father did, so he gets fewer small-dollar contributions over the Internet. This is also a more crowded field than 2012 with lots of people trying to raise money from the same donors.
4. Rand hasn't been a good candidate. He comes across as prickly and aloof at least as often as he comes across as cerebral and revolutionary. He quite clearly doesn't have a rapport with major donors — see point No. 3 — and he lacks the I'm-everybody's-revolutionary-grandpa vibe that worked so well for his dad. (That's understandable since Rand is only 52 years old.) He hasn't found ways to connect with voters in early states or, really, any state.
Add it all up, and you see why he is where he is, which is nowhere. Stranger things have happened in politics than a Rand Paul comeback. But with pressure likely to ramp up on him to return home and make sure the party doesn't lose his Senate seat next November, it may become increasingly hard for Paul to hold on to his presidential dreams.