In the campaign season, lots of writers have a lot of space to fill. Weekly or daily they must have something convincingly and interestingly synthetic to say about the fact that a politician is raising money and going to events, and random people across the country are being asked on the phone whether they'd vote for him or if they like him.
A combination of low money and falling poll numbers, combined with the usual array of "that other guy involved in this team process sucks" that anyone who can get anonymous interviews with anyone involved in any campaign (or any team process) will find, leads this week to Rand Paul's campaign being declared, once again!, and still nearly a half year before any vote is cast, over, man, over. (The Atlantic did the same seven weeks ago, and I thought they were being silly then.)
Let's start with Politico. They've got a couple of discouraging facts as they take us deep inside the Paul campaign's "downward spiral."
"Paul has taken in just $13 million, a fraction of what all his major rivals for the Republican nomination have raised and far less than Paul hoped" and he's been dropping in polls lately in the Age of Trump.
Then the story just becomes an attempt to paint a vaguely sketched picture of a campaign riddled with personal issues, dueling would-be bosses, and a lackadaisical candidate.
Here's the thing I've learned about interviewing people involved in a group endeavor: You're always going to find people involved who thinks everyone else involved is is doing a shitty job. Given the slightest grain of reason to believe things aren't going well, those involved will happily anonymously blame it on other people being awful, and on themselves being "undermanned and overworked."
Grant them anonymity to complain, and you've got journalistic gold—or at least a half-interesting anecdote about a newbie to Paulworld campaign manager getting in the grill of a family retainer security guard when he thinks he's keeping the candidate from supporters, and making everyone mad at him.
Many staffers working for a campaign that isn't doing as well as they hoped want to blame the candidate himself and do, largely for not being eager and willing to work as hard on campaigning as he should be. Paul is said to be not happy enough about donor or voter relations to handshake potential supporters whenever he can as long as he can, or even to reliably show up at confabs with tons of fabulously wealthy potential donors.
The rest of the story is the sort of vague, hard to pin down accusations of malaise, and a few likely verifiable "hmm maybe I want a better job on a better campaign" thoughts from campaign staff—who are, not to sound like their boss or anything, fully replaceable if they want to jump ship. It's all interesting, kind of, but given that there was zero reason to expect an insurgent campaign like Paul's to instantly leap to the front of the pile, I'm not sure how much weight to place on it.
When or if Trump stops soaking up all the "mad as hell at the status quo" energy, I'd expect things to start looking better for Rand Paul. But, well, maybe not!
Those daring data darlings at the Fivethirtyeight blog vow to explain: "What's Wrong with Rand Paul's Campaign." It presents what is wrong, in its style, in pure numbers, not striving to answer why. The facts are not thrilling for Rand Paul fans:
Paul saw a brief boost around the time he officially announced he was running for president. But the upswing was fleeting, and he has now fallen behind the pace his father set in the 2012 campaign. Ron Paul steadily rose in national polls as the campaign unfolded. Rand, on the other hand, is steadily falling. In addition to his plummeting support in the early primary state of New Hampshire, Paul has seen his numbers deteriorate in Iowa: The NBC News/Marist polls that came out Sunday put Paul at his lowest point thus far in either state….
The more worrying problem for Paul is his favorability numbers: They're also dropping. Different pollsters ask about favorability in different ways, but YouGov has checked the popularity of almost every Republican candidate every single week since the beginning of the year. So we can easily compare from poll to poll. Over the first five weeks of 2015, Paul's favorable rating averaged 62 percent among Republicans. Just 14 percent had an unfavorable view of him. Over the five most recent weeks, though, Paul's favorable rating has averaged 52 percent, with an unfavorable rating of 27 percent. His net favorability rating (favorable minus unfavorable) has dropped by nearly half, from +48 percentage points to +25 percentage points.
Fans of Rand or fans of what he is seen to stand for on the political scene shouldn't be blind to the not-great news: It's completely true that the money isn't great so far for either the official campaign or the uncoordinated SuperPACs, and the poll numbers against his fellow Republicans are getting worse. (He's still losing against Hillary Clinton by fewer percentage points than any of his rivals in RealClearPolitics averages.)
But money can come in at any time, no one has voted yet, and until the polls start drilling down to why people are getting disenchanted with Paul or never liked him to begin with, there is little interesting analytically to say. Is he losing ground for being against the Iran deal? For being for defunding Planned Parenthood? Because the people being polled have a completely erroneous idea about what Paul stands for? For being too radically libertarian? For not being libertarian enough? We don't know.
David Weigel and Ben Terris at Washington Post jab at Paul's apparently now defunct rep as the "most interesting man in politics" with a "follow him around New Hampshire" piece dinging him for a precipitous 10-point polling drop in that state. The campaign says—and what can they say?—that:
they see…a rope-a-dope strategy that is working more or less as intended. Although the fund-raising numbers could always be higher, they insist there is minimal downside to being out of the media glare six months before the Iowa caucuses.
Sounds like desperate excuse-making for poor performance in a certain context, but…they may turn out to be right.
Matt Welch, Reason magazine's editor in chief and author of the book McCain: The Myth of a Maverick, reminds me that John McCain's eventually nomination-winning campaign was plagued with true tales of campaign chaos and upheaval and apparent signs of death til long after this point in the 2008 cycle.
Political writers gotta write, and non-analytical reporting on he said this at that event and made this gaffe on this TV show and introduced this bill get boring and don't generate much juice.
It is easy to believe that when confronted even with a libertarian as un-consistent as Rand Paul, voters find it offputting, no matter how much he tries to stress things like cutting off Planned Parenthood funding and saying grossly misleading things to suggest the Iranian nuke deal is a huge mistake. Or it could be he's alienating the libertarian base. I don't know, and no one knows.
What I wrote early last month when The Atlantic first started tossing the dirt on the coffin of Rand Paul's presidential campaign:
I'm not sure what [those saying the campaign is dead] expected—for Paul to be leading by multiple points in every poll? To be raising more money than all his competitors? To have forced all his competitors to drop out already?
Libertarians sympathetic to Paul want him to be a decent advocate of intelligent libertarian or libertarian-leaning political ideas. It would be encouraging if he raises a ton of money and does well in the polls early doing so, but the national libertarian political revolution might still be in the future.
The vast majority of potential voters likely have no clear idea of what Rand Paul stands for right now, and not being as into the fun and games of multi-year presidential races as pundits and bloggers, don't care. The debates coming soon might be a first chance for Paul to really educate a wider range of voters as to what he's all about.
Making predictions or bold declarations or clear implications about who will do well or win next year based on current fund raising, polling, or internal campaign grousing is pretty silly, though the hungry demands of column inches necessitate political writers doing so.