Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) beat Ted Cruz in a presidential preference straw poll at a New Hampshire convention of the Republican Liberty Caucus on Saturday, winning 46 more votes than the Texas senator and presidential rival.
The poll allowed people to approve of as many candidates as they wanted, so the numbers add up to far more than 100. Paul got 57 percent approval; Cruz got 51 percent.
The results fit the narrative that Cruz and Paul are fighting it out for the same "liberty" audience within the GOP, and if polls mean anything right now that isn't a huge electorate: current Real Clear Politics polling averages for the two men together add up to just 9.3 percent.
"Liberty Republicans have clearly identified these two candidates as the best in a crowded field. They are an inspiration to Republicans around the country and we look forward to a great crop of candidates at every level, ready to go to Washington and restore limited government and a respect for individual liberty," [said RLC chairman Matt Nye.]
Ben Carson was in third place at 18 percent, followed by Carly Fiorina (10 percent), Sen. Marco Rubio (9 percent), Donald Trump (7 percent), Gov. Bobby Jindal (6 percent) and Rick Santorum (4 percent.)
Catherine Frazier, a spokeswoman for Cruz's campaign, wrote me today that "Sen. Cruz is a natural fit for libertarians given his strong record defending constitutional liberties—particularly religious liberty, the right to bear arms, right to privacy and state sovereignty—these are issues Sen. Cruz has led on both as a Supreme Court litigator and in the U.S. Senate."
Sergio Gor of Paul's campaign says in a written message that "We appreciate Senator Cruz's new interest in Liberty minded voters. But the fact is Rand Paul has been steadfast and consistent in his defense of the constitution and the limited role of government." Referring to Cruz's vaunted impressive fundraising ($12 million in the third quarter, reportedly another million since), Gor adds, "No amount in any bank account can change that.
"Senator Paul remains the only candidate with strong appeal to real liberty voters," Gor wrote. "While Senator Cruz bought hundreds of tickets and bused people to the recent RLC poll in New Hampshire, he still came up short." (Paul's campaign acknowledged giving some tickets to supporters, but believe their people are and have already been a more natural RLC audience.)
Frazier of the Cruz campaign says they only bought 25 tickets to give to supporters and "did not bus anyone in."
I've seen copies of email sent out before the event to Cruz supporters encouraging them to grab free tickets through an online link and attend the convention. I was unable to get RLC officials to give hard figures on campaign bulk purchases.
RLC Chair Matt Nye said in a written message that "to my knowledge, both campaigns were on equal footing going into the straw poll, and the results are consistent with what we have seen in past RLC straw polls across the country, with the sole possible exception that because we used the approval voting method Cruz appears to have placed higher than in previous polls."
Dave Nalle, a Texan and former RLC chair who was elected vice chair at this convention, is a current Paul supporter who has also worked with Cruz's Senate campaign in the past. He says he doesn't know how many free-ticket ringers came in for Cruz, but finds it "very unlikely that they would need two staffers and a multi page list of voters [as he says he saw] to handle 25 people." Nalle says that "a significant difference is that the Paul people stuck around, Cruz people mostly came in, voted, looked around and wandered off."
Nalle also thinks he saw Cruz people as being "20 or so years older than Paul people, and our convention is pretty youth oriented."
(There is nothing rulebreaking or sinister about doing what you can to get your people to show up at an event for a straw poll.)
Regardless of why they were there, this presidential year RLC convention (the group, founded in 1991, organizes liberty-minded voters and candidates on the grassroots, endorses candidates, and runs a PAC that fundraises for libertarian-oriented Republican candidates) saw attendance around four times their last one two years ago, says Aaron Day, chair of the RLC of New Hampshire.
Day grants he saw a lot of "new faces," but he thinks that if, say, a Trump or a Jeb Bush had suddenly won a ton of votes, that would have indicated "people coming in to play around with the straw poll. But I do think [the people who showed up to vote for Cruz] are people generally speaking in our universe."
One of the points that might lead an RLC-type voter to approve of Cruz over Paul is foreign policy. "That's the main differentiator between Paul and Cruz," says Day. "It's to a certain degree a division among [the RLC] though our statement of principles and positions are more aligned with Rand" on foreign policy.
Even President Obama, as Nick Gillespie reported here earlier, is beginning to come clean that any Syrian intervention strategy didn't really work very well, a point that might become more clear to more voters come January.
As Paul campaign spokesman Sergio Gor said in a written message today, "Senator Paul has always believed that when secular dictators in the Middle East are toppled, they get replaced with radical Islam and chaos. For many years pundits in Washington though otherwise, but time and again Senator Paul has been proven right."
Paul's emailed press release statement about his victory at the RLC convention said:
My message of expanding personal liberty and shrinking the overzealous federal government is resonating from coast to coast. Liberty unites people, and I am honored to win the Republican Liberty Caucus straw poll. I will continue to represent the Liberty wing of the Republican party by campaigning on bold, conservative principles like balancing the budget, restraining the powers of the federal government, and passing term limits to get rid of the career politicians in both parties.
That statement did not mention foreign policy, an area where Paul's suspicion of intervention may seem more important by the time voting comes around next year. Or, of course, it might be something the American people are more scared of depending on what goes down in the Middle East between now and then; Americans aren't always able to see and understand how present crises were caused or exacerbated by past interventions.
There is certainly lots of opportunity in foreign policy for Paul to distinguish himself from Cruz, who just last week wrote a bellicose op-ed about Syria in which, while not being so rash as to openly call for military action against Putin, calls for more flexing of American muscle in the area in order to "demonstrate to Putin that we will not allow him to move unimpeded into the region to advance an agenda that is contrary to our own." There's certainly nothing small-government or liberty-oriented about threatening to re-ignite the Cold War against the world's other major nuclear power in the name of scaring Putin with the power of "American exceptionalism" while further embroiling ourselves in the Middle Eastern quagmire.
Cruz's campaign has announced a slow-n-steady strategy whereby Cruz picks up (ideally as other candidates appealing to these constituencies drop out) the libertarian-leaning, the evangelicals, and the Tea Partiers. The Washington Post via Texas Tribune summed up the fault lines between Cruz and Paul and Cruz's attempts to tap the liberty market.
On another issue that divides libertarians from conservatives, Paul was also asked at the RLC convention about pardoning Edward Snowden. Paul continues to be against that idea:
"He revealed a program that we probably would've never known about had not he revealed it because the government was lying to us," he said. "So in many ways, you could call him a whistle-blower."…
"I think the best compromise on it is that there would be some penalty but that people who are going nuts—which includes half the people in our party, wanting to execute him, shoot him, chop his head off, all this crazy stuff—they're completely wrong," he said. "I think there could be some accommodation. I think he would actually serve some sentence if it were reasonable and were negotiated."
In other Paul coverage, W. James Antle at American Conservative (who profiled Paul for Reason back in 2010) delivers a nuanced look at exactly where and why Paul might be failing, and how his campaign, if worse comes to worse, might at least keep up the liberty-coalition-building within the GOP that his dad Ron started even if Rand doesn't excel in votes earned.
In a horserace democracy, a candidate/figurehead often has to keep an idea coalition going. For those who see hope for libertarian ideas in GOP politics, it is hopeful (at little, I suppose) to recall that the path from Goldwater as a prominent player (1960) to Ronald Reagan as president was 20 years, not eight.
The RLC's Nalle tells me from the perspective of the many activists he talked to at the convention, they are merely pissed off and not discouraged by press that paints Paul's campaign as washed up. They are mostly more savvy about politics than young liberty activists might have been in even the recent past, including being aware that just having the correct ideas does not guarantee a quick victory.
For those who want to really see for themselves how the campaign is doing, the modern media hip Paul announced he'll be livestreaming his entire day of campaigning on Tuesday.