Rand Paul's Iowa Chances

A surprisingly consistent libertarian message, his people believe, will prove the polls dead wrong tonight at the Iowa caucuses.


"We must be brave enough to believe that ideas are powerful, maybe even stronger than armies," said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), speaking before a crowd at the private Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, last week.

Throughout the half hour he talked, he was mostly calm, offering sometimes long-winded libertarian truths, getting big cheer lines from an often-rowdy crowd for everything from how we will soon run out of other people's money, and how we must fight Big Brother; how he will "never ignore the human costs of war" (which triggered a wave of "President Paul!" shouts) and that "we must be the party of justice and justice begins when the war on drugs ends," while also stressing that we must stop IRS harassment.

Not much he said made him seem like he was fighting on the same ground as any of his opponents, except when he slammed Donald Trump for his practice of eminent domain and Ted Cruz for his hunger for government to swallow up our phone records.

Paul opened with a curiously spiritual rap prefaced with "What victory is faith if we are not free to choose it?" and assured the students that he was the candidate who wanted to build a bigger, broader party, "with more walks of life, with tattoos and without, with earrings and without, in overalls and in suits, a bigger more diverse party because, as my dad always said, 'liberty brings people together.'" 

Liberty needs to bring a lot of people together for Rand Paul in Iowa's caucuses tonight for his campaign to have much life left.

Paul's been doing many similar talks before students and other groups of Iowans over the past week, sometimes drawing over 1,000. Last night, he did a rare dual appearance with his father, former Texas congressman Ron Paul, who won the caucus votes of over 21 percent of Iowans four years ago. (Rand tells reporters he has reason to believe that some extant polling in Iowa seems to be missing a lot of that group.)

He's been defending a foreign policy opposed to regime change in the Middle East to the last, as USA Today reports:

"You want somebody that's going to be the commander in chief who has some temperament. That really isn't eager to pull the trigger," he said. "I want a foreign policy that defends America. That makes us strong again. But I don't want a foreign policy that thinks that regime change in the Middle East is going to work."

The national optics for Paul going into the caucus are as good as can be expected for a candidate who suffers both crummy poll numbers and a general sense that his quasi-libertarian approach seems the last thing GOP voters want in an age of Trump.

Those problems combined have relegated him to "who cares?" status to most media and possibly most voters. He was even denied a seat in the Jan. 14 Fox Business News main debate, an insult that Paul turned into a good earned media opportunity.

As his presentation at Drake indicates, to the extent Paul does do well tonight, sticking to mostly libertarian bonafides will be why. (Even to non-libertarians, Paul's stances can seem like refreshing common sense compared to his opponents.) But it seems clear that the currently Trump-Cruz dominated party base isn't libertarian dominated. Even if he shocks the world tonight, Paul will still at best be leading a rump revolution within the Party, not its ruling faction.

Poll numbers in Iowa on the rise got him got him back into the last pre-caucus debate on Thursday (he was 5th in the lastest Des Moines Register poll), his last chance to potentially reach voters across the state who didn't leave their house to see him.

Paul had a good night. He skillfully, if not necessarily passionately, hit his unique libertarian-ish bonafides over surveillance and privacy, criminal justice reform, and foreign intervention. (He might have whiffed on abortion, from whatever side you approach the matter.) The Washington Post declared Paul the top winner of the debate though also confident it's still "too little too late" for him. Data journalism superstar Nate Silver at his FiveThirtyEight site also called Rand the winner, as did James Poulos at The Week, praising Paul's "brilliant combination of high dudgeon and medium chill."

But what has to happen for him to win even a perception victory in Iowa? As Stephanie Slade wrote here last week, it is going to be about turnout, and Rand had both a campaign and an unaffiliated SuperPac, Concerned American Voters (CAV) working Iowa on that. Paul's people are confident their get-out-the-vote (GOTV) operation will deliver 10,000 students to caucus for Paul, which in and of itself would amount to over 8 percent of the 2012 caucus turnout.

Cliff Maloney, who's running the youth operation for the campaign in Iowa, answered some questions about the operation via email. He says they will have made 1.2 million phone calls by the time everything is over today, and currently have 150 active volunteers at their Iowa HQ. While Ted Cruz is also reported to have a very impressive ground and phone operation, Maloney is "confident that Team Rand has the top ground game in Iowa."

The key to student appeal, Maloney says, is that "every student we speak with loves that Rand is consistent and authentic. Students love that he is an every-day Joe, an eye surgeon from Bowling Green. The more we talk about privacy, a sober foreign policy, and his consistent stance for the principles of liberty, the more we find students joining our SFR [Students for Rand] chapters."

Matt Kibbe of CAV says that while they have not had a specifically student-focus like the campaign, they are confident they've identified and are communicating well with over 30,000 Rand-identified potential caucusers, and are helping house squads of door-knockers for Paul in these last 48 hours.

Paul's appeal isn't single issue, says Steve Grubbs, a veteran of earlier Steve Forbes and Herman Cain (among other) GOP campaigns, who has been helming the Paul campaign's Iowa operations. "With Forbes it was all the flat tax, with Herman Cain it was 999, but with Rand Paul it's the overall liberty message and how it applies to all issues, but particularly peace through strength, audit the Fed, civil justice reform."

Grubbs says as of late last week that they had around 1,025 precinct captains for the state's 1,681 precincts, who are important as folk handling the most granular GOTV efforts, making sure local committeds show up to the polls, and also for handling the vital task of convincing, in short speeches before their neighbors at the caucus meeting, undecideds why they should vote for Rand Paul.

"A significant number" of Iowans don't really finally settle their decision til after they've heard what their neighbors caucusing for the various candidates have to say at the meeting itself, Grubbs says. Paul's precinct captains will be giving out lapel stickers to supporters that push three issues: term limits, peace through strength, and flat tax.

Gage Skidmore via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

I spoke to a handful of Concerned American Voters canvassers, some who'd worked in Iowa and some who are working in Nevada. (The Paul campaign itself holds its volunteers to a non-disclosure agreement, and even ones I reached out to informally over social networking held to it. While I understand message discipline, as with the Ron Paul campaign, a potentially inspirational story of youth and grassroots activism that could be grand for general media optics is there to be told, though the campaign seem to insist it can't be told, at least not on their watch.)

Adam Sullivan, who was in college in Iowa during the 2012 Ron Paul campaign and who did activism work later with the Paulist Young Americans for Liberty, was a field director for CAV in Iowa this campaign. He says for Rand fans, the "outside, the anti-establishment thing" was hot, and he didn't think a majority of Rand supporters would necessarily self-identify as "libertarian."

That said, even among the constitutionalists or conservatives, "I didn't hear anyone saying we definitely need to keep pot illegal, keep filling the prisons" and he is sure progress on that "is a credit to Ron and Rand Paul." Despite what current polls might indicate, Sullivan thinks the idea that a vast majority of Ron voters are turned off this year by some perceived softness in Rand's small-government bonafides is a myth.

Evangelicals are a big thing in Iowa, and Sullivan thinks most of them at least like Rand fine, even if he's not their first choice. Of the big "values" issues in Iowa, they are far more concerned with pro-life than gay marriage these days. Sullivan, and other CAV canvassers in Nevada, acknowledge that some GOP voters see Paul as "insufficiently aggro" or "too dovish" when it comes to foreign policy. The most likely voter to be hostile to Paul is the Trump voter.

A profile of CAV's digital video ad strategy in Rare says they've found "topics that performed well were Paul's correct predictions about the perils of arming jihadists, and strong condemnations of politicians for getting us into $18 trillion in debt."

CAV has spent around a million on such ads, and the PAC's operator Jeff Frazee told Rare that "Everything [CAV] has done has been very data driven. We've made sure to check our own intuitions and opinions at the door, and let the data tell us what messaging is strongest and what's resonating with voters."

Kibbe of CAV says that, even though foreign policy might be understood to be a weak point for Paul with the imagined modal GOP primary voter, "his stance on foreign interventions is a key issue for us." That makes sense since it has been a major way he's "differentiated himself from a crowded field" in which you need motivated folk to actually show up and wait through Iowa's long and complicated caucus process. That involves sitting through long meetings and literally standing up in public for your candidate  [the "literally standing up" part not true for GOP, just Democrats; my misunderstanding and mis-remembering his experience in 2012, not Kibbe's.]; it's not like going into a booth, pulling a lever, and heading home. 

Kibbe is confident enough the polls are wrong about Paul that he calls a top-three showing for his man tonight, and vows regardless that CAV is "in it til the day he's sworn in office" and already has active operations in groundwork in Nevada and social media work in New Hampshire.

CAV has pulled in six-figure donations from a handful of wealthy libertarians, including Whole Foods co-founder and co-CEO John Mackey. Overall, the three SuperPACs dedicated to Rand took in $4.6 million in the second half of 2015, spending $5.9 million in the same period but still holding $4.4 million in reserve.

Paul campaigns believe in phone calls, and plenty of them. As with Ron Paul in Iowa in 2012 I've seen some signs that some people are annoyed and frustrated at how many times Rand Paul makes their telephone ring. National Journal reported that your Cruzes and Bushes are also making over 10K calls a day using sophisticated computer data systems, but Trump's voter identification or GOTV efforts are a black box and may be non-existent.

If that is true, and a huge chunk of those polling now for Trump don't actually trouble themselves to go caucus for him today, Rand Paul's hopeful declaration in a press conference last week that polls may be not just 5 but 15 percent off could have some bearing.

The idea that Trump may have picked up a portion of the old Ron Paul coalition just on the basis of being the most convincing "radical outsider" (independent of actual ideas) rings true with some, but not all, Paul watchers. One longtime Paul fan admits that to some in 2012 Ron was not necessarily the libertarian candidate but just the radically anti-Washington "drain the swamps" guy and Trump plays the same role for many now. That same analyst thinks that libertarians, and the GOP establishment, both underestimate how strong in Iowa is the desire to just see "every illegal immigrant sent back home, no matter how many buses it takes."

Kibbe says from his years of tending the Tea Party grassroots via his previous work with FreedomWorks that the GOP powers-that-be underestimated exactly how much they had pissed off and disenfranchised many of their voters. Many of them now see Trump as "a convenient wrecking ball to take out the Republican Party and start over" which given his character and ideas is a "dangerous game" that Kibbe still hope Paul can block.

Something to ensure Trump doesn't do as well in Iowa or down the road as currently seems likely is key to the campaign's or the PAC's hope. 

Paul is definitely selling a very different spirit than Trump, for those who still want to hear it. While rock n' roll as the language of rebellion may be an outmoded concept, it still warms this libertarian's heart seeing Paul take the idea of liberty past just specific things government may be doing, from taxing to spying, that make our lives harder, to a more idealistic and cosmic sense of individual possibility, by quoting that most cosmic of classic rock bands, Pink Floyd.

At his talk last night, as reported in the Des Moines Register, Paul:

elicited the help of Pink Floyd's infamous "Shine on You Crazy Diamond" to drive home his point that free ideas are the most powerful weapon.

"For the crazy diamonds to shine, government must get out of the way," he said. "The leave-me-alone generation is a generation that believes they can conquer the world and solve any problems if left free to follow their dreams. You are the leave-me-alone-generation, and I want you to shine, shine on."

If Iowa doesn't work out impressively for Paul, what then?

Paul is famously not thrilled with campaigning as a way of life. Will he just chalk up any failure in 2016 to Trump, or the times, and try again in 2020 to proceed further with what's already been built? One anonymous observer close to the campaign who has spent time with the candidate doesn't think so. "I personally don't think he will run again. He just doesn't enjoy the process. The redeeming thing about Rand Paul is that he's a family guy, he's really isn't fond of D.C. and he'd really just like term limits to get rid of all the rotten people in D.C. I think he wants to return to his family and his eye practice." 

But that same observer doesn't think tonight is going to be the end, no matter what happens. He does feel Paul has a sense that it would be "a disservice to the antiwar people and the liberty minded people if Rand doesn't allow them a place to cast their vote" even if he doesn't seem on a path to win. But then that observer makes it sound more like hope than expectation. "I hope he stays in, or at worst just suspends active campaigning [if he's doing poorly in early states], but totally ending it would take away a place for liberty people to vote."

Paul and his campaign don't want to speculate about a bad outcome right now. "We're going to surprise a lot of people on Monday," Paul said at his campaign speech this weekend. It might be his last chance to do so.