Politico is up this week with a story about how Rand Paul is (back to) campaigning as a Libertarian. After his current swing through Iowa, I would describe his campaign differently. To me, it seems like Rand is campaigning as the frontrunner.
I’ve been to a lot of caucus events. Granted, I’m relatively young, so I can’t tell you about Carter’s insurgent strategy in ’76. But in the years since Bush v. Gore, I have seen virtually every candidate to make the trek across Iowa. (Most of them numerous times.) So I have a relatively strong sense of what constitutes a “normal,” Pizza Ranch-style, event. And there is nothing normal about the Paul campaign.
The average caucus event goes something like this: audience arrives, takes free water or coffee, gets a sticker, signs a sign-in sheet, and sits and waits. The candidate arrives approximately 15 minutes after posted start time, is introduced briefly, and then gives a 15-20 minute stump speech. After the stump, the candidate takes 5-6 questions from the audience. The candidate then stands around for a few minutes taking pictures with audience members, until an aide hustles him/her out the door so that the candidate maintains the air of “I’m an important person with important places to be.” 80% of all caucus events fit neatly into that mold. Of course, there are some variations. Clinton and Obama were never able to do the “normal” event. Formality and rope lines were their raison d’être. Until the last few weeks of the 2011/12 campaign, Santorum would take questions until the audience left on their own. Joe Biden would stand around until he had made a personal connection with everyone in the room. But on the whole, caucus events follow a pattern.
But Rand Paul’s events are a little different. Take his event in Sioux Center on Wednesday. The event was billed as a meet and greet at the public library. But you needed to get tickets in advance. When the audience arrived, they were directed to line up in the hall outside the venue. Campaign workers set up a background for taking photos, and then when the Senator arrived (on time), the line slowly filed into the room, taking a photo with Paul as they passed. Once everyone was photographed and seated, an aide introduced a lavishly produced video featuring Mrs. Paul talking about her husband’s humanitarian work. Paul then gave a general election stump speech. After Paul spoke, a campaign aide stood up to solicit commitment cards in exchange for lapel pins. Then the audience looked around at each other wondering if the event was over. It was. (Aides had to start taking down the decorations before the audience started to believe it was time to leave.)
Paul currently sits in the middle of the Republican pack nationally, and fourth in Iowa. But everything about his staged event screams, “I’m the front runner.” From a certain point of view Paul is in good shape. As he repeatedly points out on the stump, he polls very well head to head versus Clinton. But a head to head poll is meaningless trivia if he doesn’t move up in the Republican polls and win the Republican nomination. And running like you already won is not a good way to get people to vote for you.
Take his stump speech. Over twenty minutes he talked about his economic proposal for a flat tax and emphasized his quasi-liberal, quasi-isolationist, quasi-Edward Snowden foreign policy. Sure he got applause for his one-page tax return plan, cutting funding to anti-Christian countries and closing the EPA. But he failed to mention any current events like Obamacare, Gay Marriage, the Confederate Flag or even obvious red meat the like the Clinton email scandal. (The only issue discussed by attendees in the hall prior to the Paul event was the Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage. Sioux County is Bob Vander Plaats’ country after all.)
By not taking questions, Senator Paul ensured that he didn’t have to discuss uncomfortable topics or go off script. But the audience was obviously disappointed by the omission. Also off-putting was Paul’s awkward staged photo arrangement. The Paul family has always been a little abrupt when it comes to interacting with the public. Ron Paul often skipped photo ops (lest his cult-like followers carry him off into the crowd) and hustled out the door to his next event. But Rand Paul engaged his photo line in Sioux Center with the same enthusiasm that George Lucas reserves for a fan stopping him on the street to make suggestions about what should happen in the next Star Wars movie. Picture-takers were shuffled along so quickly they didn’t even have a chance to say their names or thank Paul for coming.
There is no doubt that the Paul family has a lot of supporters. He filled the Sioux Center library to standing-room only in the middle of the afternoon on workday before a holiday. I joked about the cult-like devotion of Ron’s followers, but it is an undeniable benefit for Rand to know that he has a rock solid base of support. And Rand has numerous policy positions that have cross-party appeal. He is the only Republican reaching for minority votes, with concrete statements about revitalizing urban areas and reducing harsh sentencing laws. He avoids immigration talk if he can (even if his views would make Steve King happy) and he actively, if quietly, courts the pro-pot vote. But those have been his positions for the duration, and so far Rand hasn’t moved beyond his family’s base of support. (His numbers actually seem slightly down from Ron’s.) Meanwhile, some candidates’ whole campaigns are premised on attacking Paul’s foreign policy views (Lindsey Graham).
I think Rand has sufficiently distinguished himself on policy positions. He stands out from the pack. What he needs to do now is actually convince early state voters to support his candidacy. He isn’t going to do that with staged photo ops and a stump speech that avoids the topics the crowd wants to talk about. And he’s not going to meet new potential supporters by requiring tickets for his meet and greets. Maybe Paul should shelve the introduction video for a while and spend a few extra minutes with his audience.
Or maybe Paul has some other plan, like using the debates to get ahead later on. It is still early after all. (At this point four years ago, the biggest campaign news was the fact that Michelle Bachmann didn’t know that John Wayne was born in Winterset.) If Paul has some non-traditional strategy to broaden his appeal, maybe his front runner type event is a deliberate choice. But until something changes, if you want to see a well-run event, with the production design you would expect from Hillary Clinton, check out Rand Paul.
by Jason Winter