Is Rand Paul's campaign in the midst of a collapse? Everyone from Nate Silver to Politico to the thinkers at Salon has suggested as much. It's fast becoming conventional wisdom that the Kentucky senator is dead in the water.
That's absurd on many levels, as my colleague Brian Doherty outlined beautifully last week. After all, John McCain's campaign struggled mightily in the money game and underwent a pretty serious reorganization during the '08 primary cycle. It didn't stop him from snagging the Republican nomination.
But what to make of the polling? There's no denying that Paul's standing has slipped. His RealClearPolitics average has gone from 17 percent in 2013 to less than 6 percent today. If you're a fan of Rand, should you be concerned?
As I've written here at Reason, national primary horserace polling is astonishingly bad at predicting the ultimate victor in a months-long nominating contest. Around this point in 2007, Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani were leading in the polls by double-digit margins. In 2011–12, no fewer than five different GOPers traded off for the first-place spot in national polls before Mitt Romney finally pulled out the win.
And the polling conditions this year are even worse. Having a reality TV celebrity jump into the race throws things off like crazy—because when polled early on, before they've had a chance to really learn about the different candidates, people tend to give the name of whomever they've heard of most often and/or recently. There's no question in 2015 that name is Donald Trump.
Some 98 percent of respondents in a recent CNN/ORC poll had heard of the New York billionaire. This gives him an enormous leg up. For Rand Paul, that number was more than 20 points lower. Scott Walker, meanwhile, was known by just 58 percent of respondents. So you can see how much room candidates like Walker and Paul have to improve.
Even now, Paul is in a reasonably strong position. That CNN/ORC survey put him tied with Ted Cruz for fifth position—fifth out of 17 declared Republican candidates.
I wouldn't be surprised, either, if a good number of the folks going to Trump in the polls right now ended up voting for Paul on Election Day—not because Trump's and Paul's positions on the issues are alike, but because Trump is attracting the type of people who are "fed up with establishment politics" and "tired of career politicians." But offering a different brand of Republicanism has been Paul's selling proposition all along. I doubt very much that, once they've stopped to think about it for a moment, GOP primary voters will decide they trust a former Clinton financier over the most interesting man in politics.
To be clear, I'm not saying I think Paul will win the nomination. For my money, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is still the man to beat. Nor am I saying early polling is good for absolutely nothing. Survey research gives campaigns important strategic insights into what the public knows and thinks. And in this particular year, when a candidate's performance in the polls might be enough to keep him or her off the main debate stage, it's likely that some bottom-tier presidential hopefuls will be pushed out of the race entirely because of how they fared in the polls.
But surely it's premature to disqualify someone who's polling in the front half of the pack more than six months out from the first primary ballots even being cast. Rand Paul's campaign isn't over. From the perspective of the rest of the country, the race has barely gotten started.