Can Rand Paul Get Over the Hump With Republicans?

One of the reasons I like Jonathan Bernstein is that he’s a political scientist who views his profession as having a valuable perspective on actual politics, not a monopoly on truth. When he makes a provocative argument, moreover, he’s less likely than most to document it with data and research that is locked away in some academic site the rest of us cannot access.

So it’s with that preface that I mention Jonathan’s very strong conviction, contra The Fix, that Rand Paul isn’t a viable candidate for the Republican presidential nominating contest in 2016. Here’s his nut graph:

I understand the math: It’s a large field and Paul is more or less guaranteed to get 20 percent of the vote in Iowa and New Hampshire. All he needs then is to exceed his father’s performance by a few thousand voters and he could easily capture those early states against a splintered group of Republicans. That’s an illusion. There probably won’t be a dozen candidates in Iowa; Republicans have efficiently winnowed their field pre-Iowa for several cycles. But it doesn’t matter; even if Paul wins with 25 percent of the vote in Iowa, he’s not going to win the nomination unless he can eventually reach more than 50 percent. And as long as a substantial clot of party actors opposes his candidacy and most of the rest are indifferent at best, he’s not going to get the favorable publicity he needs to do that.

This is a good and important point. But I have to say, its salience depends on factors of timing and alternatives we just cannot anticipate. I’d assume that Jonathan would view as reasonably strong examples of “party elite” power within the GOP Mitt Romney’s nomination in 2012 and George W. Bush’s in 2000. Both bandwagons came perilously close to falling apart. At the time, it was widely believed that Rick Santorum might put Romney on the ropes by winning the February 2012 primary in Mitt’s second-home-state of Michigan. There was even panicky talk of recruiting Jeb Bush into the race to block Santorum. And without question in 2000, Bush, who had the most overwhelmingly unanimous elite backing of any presidential candidate ever in a seriously contested race, nearly lost the nomination to John McCain, whose allies famously resorted to smears to stop McCain in South Carolina.

Now you can ignore all the details if you want and just say the elite candidates did win in 2000 and 2012, thus reinforcing a “law” (just as some political scientists and journalists alike still say “moderate conservatives” always win GOP presidential nominations without looking at the demolition derbies that produced that outcome in 2008 and 2012) we are required to accept until such time as it’s destroyed amidst general mockery. But I’d say it’s always a good idea to show some healthy respect for the unpredictable aspects of politics, especially in intraparty contests. I, too, have a hard time envisioning Rand Paul accepting the GOP presidential nomination in 2016. But his successful maneuvering on foreign policy so far makes it a lot more possible than ever, and I’m sure there were political scientists who laughed and laughed at the idea this loopy dude would beat Mitch McConnell’s hand-picked Senate candidate in 2010.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.