WARREN, N.H. — When Sen. Rand Paul drove into this hamlet of 904 people, he was greeted by a friendly sign outside Moose Scoops Ice Cream.
“Welcome Rand Paul,” it said. “Voted 3rd best in NH.”
Unfortunately for the Kentucky Republican, that high ranking was a reference to the ice cream, which is pulling far better numbers in New Hampshire than he is. A new NBC-Marist poll in the state has Paul clocking in at ninth place among Republican primary voters, his 4 percent representing a 10-point tumble from the month before.
“[It] depends on which polls you look at, you know,” Paul said when the Boston Globe’s James Pindell asked about his sliding standing in the state. When asked about why he had fallen behind so many of his Republican opponents, Paul dodged.
“We actually have many polls where we actually lead Hillary Clinton,” he said. “So I think actually that some of our polling news is actually pretty good.”
Paul also noted that everyone’s numbers have been diluted in polls now that so many more candidates are running. He did not explain why his have been more diluted than the rest of the field’s.
Last fall, Time magazine dubbed Paul “the most interesting man in politics.” But it has been a year since he led a national poll and months since he led in New Hampshire, a state where his father made strong stands in two presidential campaigns. According to the data firm Crimson Hexagon, roughly a third of all Republican-primary news articles in May were about Paul. In July, it’s been closer to 1 in 10.
Paul entered the presidential race on an unusually robust cloud of hype. When he is swarmed by autograph seekers, he is occasionally asked to sign the Time magazine cover. That cover appeared in October. This summer, the Wall Street Journal has dubbed him “no longer a first-tier candidate”; the Atlantic has politely described him as “struggling.”
The press sees a candidate slipping out of the conversation. Those in his campaign say they see something else: a rope-a-dope strategy that is working more or less as intended. Although the fundraising numbers could always be higher, they insist there is minimal downside to being out of the media glare six months before the Iowa caucuses.
Several campaign staffers made the same point: No one is cutting through the fog of Donald Trump. Why send the candidate to the same all-day cattle calls the rest of the field has been dutifully trucking to, only to wind up earning him one paragraph, one moment of B-roll, in yet another story about the rampaging billionaire?
“I think it’s a long haul through all of this,” Paul said in his D.C. campaign office this week. He played idly with a Louisville Slugger baseball bat as he talked; nearby, debate briefing material was stacked a foot high. “We anticipate being there and putting a lot of energy and effort into the debates. Hopefully, people will be watching. I’ve been to Iowa 20 times; I’ve been to New Hampshire probably 20 or 30 times. We keep doing all that.”
At the mid-July Family Leadership Summit in Iowa, when Trump questioned the war heroism of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), nine other presidential contenders were on hand to condemn him. Paul was a thousand miles away. He spent the day at a rally in Texas, which will hold its Republican primary at least seven weeks after Iowa’s caucuses. For him, it was a day and a plane ticket well spent.
“We had 800 people at a rally in Houston and two fundraisers, so I think it was a better use of my time,” Paul said this week. “I’ve spoken to that same [Iowa] group before. I think I spoke to them last year. But I was the only one in Houston, so I got the front page.”
In Paul’s circle, all is well. His second-quarter haul of $7 million was always going to be dwarfed by former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), yet it was stronger than his father’s comparable $4.5 million in 2011. His preferred super PAC, America’s Liberty, raised just $3.1 million in the first quarter, but that is enough to keep the campaign fighting in every primary state. (Some of that softness may have been related to the $1.9 million raised for Concerned American Voters, created by veterans of Ron Paul’s youth network and the tea party group FreedomWorks.)
As Sasha Issenberg of Bloomberg Politics has reported, Paul’s campaign has declined to sign a data-sharing pact with the Republican National Committee. Instead, his campaign has purchased a caucus-goer list from the Republican Party of Iowa and paid $19,000 to the firm Aristotle International to construct its own data.
Paul’s network in the early-voting states has no problem with his schedule. The message of his state supporters is the message from the campaign: Anyone doing more than Paul is probably phoning it in at his real job. “On a daily basis, you want to be slow and steady,” former congressman J.C. Watts (R-Okla.), one of Paul’s first endorsers, said Friday before spending Friday stumping across Iowa while Paul worked in Washington. “The race is not given to the swift and hasty. We’ve shown we’ve got some staying power.”
That means taking the pass on a lot of traditional campaign coverage. Paul skipped two of the conservative Citizens United’s day-long campaign “freedom summits,” in Iowa and in South Carolina. (He attended a prior summit in New Hampshire.) He is not on the schedule for the RedState Gathering, hosted by the conservative blog RedState right after next month’s first Republican debate. Those decisions have left some movement figures feeling dissed.
“I had asked him directly back in March, and he was going on a mission trip to China with a group of Christian eye doctors,” said Erick Erickson, RedState’s editor in chief. “When that trip got canceled, I asked again and never heard back from them.” (Paul, who is an ophthalmologist, will join a medical trip to Haiti in mid-August.)
“He needs to activate and get in front of as many conservatives as possible,” said David Bossie, the president of Citizens United. “There’s an advantage in speaking to thousands of people in Iowa. There’s advantage in getting in front of 2,000 people in the upstate of South Carolina. That’s what we offered him. I totally respect his desire to do his own thing, but I think he made a mistake.”
In Iowa, where Paul’s support has hovered between 8 and 12 percent, allies read the lack of national buzz as more proof that the GOP establishment does not understand strategy. “Our job is to get somewhere between 20 and 25 percent of the vote on caucus night,” said Steve Grubbs, the Iowa director for Paul’s campaign. “That’s what our organization is designed to do, day in and day out: Sign people up. Our organization is on track to reach its goals — on our timeline. We do not want to be a one-week wonder.”
Still, the coverage that heralded Paul’s rise — the “most interesting man” trophies — assumed that he would drive the debate within the party. In stump speeches, Paul continues to talk up criminal-justice reform and the end of mass surveillance by the National Security Agency. At the same time, he ended a long period of meditation over the Iran nuclear negotiations by coming out against the deal.
Moves such as that have alienated the libertarian base that has always been seen as Paul’s stronghold in the crowd. Paul’s high-profile attacks on the tax code and Planned Parenthood are designed to make up for that.
“Rand is well positioned because he’s the boldest candidate in the field, with the boldest proposals and a plan to balance the budget in five years,” said Chip Englander, Paul’s campaign manager.
Englander’s experience is another reason for the Paul campaign’s calm. He was brought onto the team in January, just months after managing the campaign of Illinois’ Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner. Buffeted by attacks on his wealth, Rauner struggled to build a lead over the state’s unpopular Democratic governor. The final forecast on Nate Silver’s data-crunching site FiveThirtyEight gave Rauner just a 36 percent shot at winning his race.
One day later, even as other Republicans flopped statewide, Rauner was elected governor. It was the kind of experience that might teach people to trust the playbook and ignore the polls.
That looks to be the Paul’s game plan in New Hampshire. The Kentucky senator spent two days touring through New Hampshire this past weekend, trying to convince crowds that he is the Live-Free-Or-Die-est candidate in the race. He talked about how he is the only presidential contender trying to get the NSA to stop spying on everyone, the only White House hopeful to take an actual chain saw to the 70,000-page tax code.
Paul knows the best way to win New Hampshire is to try to appear as though he is someone who enjoys shaking hands (at a photo line, he had the forced smile of a bar mitzvah boy enduring endless pictures with great aunts and second cousins) and to hold town hall meetings (he spent so much time in the picture line at his first town hall, in West Lebanon, that he had time for only five questions).
Paul’s team insists there is nothing to worry about. “Our goal is to finish not last,” Stuart Jackson, Paul’s regional political director in New Hampshire, said before the town hall meeting Saturday morning in West Lebanon, trying to set expectations low.
The senator, now firmly an underdog, had a different message.
“I think we really need to win New Hampshire,” he told the crowd. “And it’s a really good shot for us.”