Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) recently won his second consecutive presidential straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Now, CPAC polls are hardly the best indicator of who is going to be on the Republican presidential ticket — Paul's father, former Rep. Ron Paul, also won twice, and never even came close to actually getting the nomination. Still, the straw poll results got us thinking...
Hillary Clinton is expected to have a clear path to the Democratic nomination. If Paul does indeed win the GOP nod, what would a Paul vs. Clinton race look like?
Perhaps Paul's biggest strength in this hypothetical campaign would be that "he does not look like, act like, or talk like a conventional politician," says Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky. "Voters are extremely unhappy with the political system, and Paul's awkward sincerity status clearly taps into the disillusionment." John J. Pitney Jr., a political professor at Claremont McKenna College in California, agrees that "Clinton represents the intersection of money and political power, which so many voters have come to distrust." Indeed, there are few politicians in either party who are perceived as being part of the entrenched Washington establishment more than Clinton is. In that view, Paul's "outsider" status could be a huge advantage. The flip side of that, however, is that Paul could well be painted by as an "amateur" totally unprepared for the "pressure-cooker atmosphere of a prime-time election," Voss notes.
The policy differences between Paul and Clinton would break down on fairly predictable partisan lines. Clinton's political ideologies are well-established: She's a mainstream Democrat with traditional left-of-center ideas and a built-in base that backs them. Despite some breaks from his party on foreign policy and the national-security state, Paul is, more or less, in lockstep with the rest of his party. Indeed, he's a libertarian who, as David Lublin, a government affairs professor at American University, explains, "opposes some of the aspects of libertarianism that people find appealing" but that the GOP vehemently opposes, like abortion-rights policies and same-sex marriage. Paul has also rejected his father's pro-legalization stance toward drugs, although, like the Obama administration, he supports reforming mandatory minimum sentences. The candidates' biggest ideological gap would likely be on the budget, as Paul supports taking a hatchet to social programs and abolishing the Departments of Commerce, Education, Energy, Housing and Urban Development in the name of debt reduction. Clinton, while not exactly a Big Government Democrat, would surely not want to shrink the federal government this way.
Clinton has some built-in demographic advantages, too. The Democrats' first female presidential nominee would surely dominate the vote of women. Clinton has minority appeal, too. Let's not forget that in 2008, she drew the Latino vote away from President Obama by a margin of two to one.
Paul would likely have a tough time winning these demographics. He opposed immigration reform last year, even with a GOP-backed amendment that would have beefed up border security. He also joked that he was "thinking about lobbying to become an illegal immigrant so I wouldn’t have to participate in ObamaCare." Paul, who is staunchly anti-abortion, has made similar jabs about women's health issues, claiming that there is no longer a war on women while advocating for cutting benefits to unwed moms who have multiple kids.
The libertarian Paul could, however, appeal to young Americans who might not normally vote Republican. "A GOP de-emphasis of social issues — while not walking away from most conservative values but perhaps focusing the debate in the states — is a credible electoral strategy for someone targeting younger voters. That's just what Rand Paul is doing," writes Ross Kaminsky in the American Spectator. Paul's unique stance on NSA surveillance and non-interventionist military policies could also draw voters who are fed up with the Obama administration's policies, to which Clinton is inextricably linked thanks to her tenure as secretary of State.
Polling data on this hypothetical match-up is still scant, but the early numbers suggest that Clinton has the advantage. A Quinnipiac University survey released Thursday shows Clinton with a lead of 10 percentage points over Paul among Iowa voters.
Indeed, it seems clear, at least at this very early stage, that Paul would be the underdog in this race, with a relatively slim chance of victory barring some kind of "significant crisis," Voss says. What kind of crisis? Pitney warns that "if the economy slips back into recession by 2016, any Democratic nominee would lose to any plausible Republican candidate."