With the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary still months away, pundits are ready to declare U.S. Senator Rand Paul’s campaign for the presidency dead on arrival. Reality star Donald Trump currently dominates Republican presidential primary polling and has captured the interest of some Tea Party voters who are as-yet unaware of his recent support of far-left political positions and his close, personal relationship with the Clinton family.
In the eyes of the corporate media, the 2016 presidential race can only end with some combination of Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump on the general election ballot, with the Republican primary being the determinant of whether Trump runs under the GOP brand or goes third party and hands the race to Clinton. However, identical narratives were advanced at similar points in the 2008 presidential race, when pundits in 2007 were sure that voters would be choosing between Hillary Clinton and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the general election. In August of 2011, Michele Bachmann became the frontrunner in the 2012 Republican primary after winning Iowa’s Ames Straw Poll only to drop completely out of the race after placing sixth in the Iowa caucuses.
Presidential frontrunners draw intense media scrutiny. The resulting deluge of articles with negative headlines, even if they lack facts, serve to push a candidate’s poll numbers downward. No candidate in a crowded field can maintain frontrunner status for months on end. That is why now is one of the worst possible moments to be a frontrunner in a contested presidential primary. The 2016 race, still months away, is currently a marathon and not a sprint.
Rand Paul is a savvier campaigner than people realize. Personally, I recall a small fundraiser for his first Senate race that I attended at The Standard in Nashville in August of 2009 when the would-be Senator told us that he believed he could win despite the fact that the mass media narrative at that time was that he had no chance of beating Dick Cheney’s hand-picked protege Trey Grayson in Kentucky’s Republican primary for U.S. Senate.
After Paul upset the establishment and defeated Grayson, he struggled in early debates with Democratic candidate Jack Conway. After all, Paul is not a career politician with years of experience in debates. However, he grew warmer as the debate season heated up, climaxing in a last-minute mic-drop moment, seen below, that reversed Paul’s flagging poll numbers and clinched his Senate victory.
Aesop’s classic fable of The Tortoise and The Hare could never be more relevant. Rand Paul began his 2016 presidential campaign at the end of his father’s 2012 effort, quietly encouraging supporters to take over GOP organizations in early primary and caucus states, which they have done, a reality which will reveal itself on the ground as candidates battle to win specific primaries and caucuses.
On the other hand Donald Trump decided very recently to become Republican, change his political positions, and run for president at a dead sprint, insulting anyone who questions him and saying whatever he can to steal headlines. In time, his political positions and erratic statements will catch up with him.
Paul’s strategy should not be to seek frontrunner status this early in the race. At this point, he only needs to keep his poll numbers high enough to remain in the debates. Current polling is based on the existing field of candidates, which will change. Paul got the least time of all candidates in Fox News’ first Republican presidential debate, and he capitalized by delivering poisonous attacks on Trump and Christie in an effort to winnow down the field. A growing number of Republicans now see Trump as a possible spoiler on behalf of the Clinton campaign, and Christie was lured into impaling his campaign on an out-of-style brand of nationalistic rhetoric.
Paul’s job right now is to soften up candidates who threaten his grip on Tea Party voters and to keep winning people over state by state by doing retail politics. Being the center of a national media firestorm months prior to the race’s official start is not a path to victory, but a slide that leads to burnout. A better plan would be to become the frontrunner during or close to the early primaries and caucuses. Paul, with a strong and organized grassroots following, has a ground game advantage that pundits have not yet taken into consideration. Closer to the election, those details will become more important than Trump’s shocking insults on Twitter.
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