Rand Paul’s presidential campaign hasn’t exactly gone as planned. Once seen as a rising star in the Republican Party, many saw him as poised to capitalize on his father Ron’s libertarian base of support and build upon it with Rand’s more conventional policies and a personality more palatable to mainstream conservatives. Instead, less than three weeks out from the Iowa Caucus he’s mired in low single-digit poll numbers and got bumped from the main debate stage for tonight’s Republican debate.
There’s a lot of reasons for Paul’s struggles in his White House bid. By most measures, Rand Paul should be doing better. Even despite his lackluster campaigning style, it’s a surprise he couldn’t even come close to replicating the success his father achieved in his 2012 run. Ron Paul secured 21% of the 2012 Iowa Caucus vote (coming in 3rd place) and even won 16 Iowa counties.
But one major roadblock emerged this cycle from an expected place: Bernie Sanders.
Young people, especially young men, anti-establishment voters, first-time voters, isolationists and libertarians made up the base of Ron Paul’s coalition in 2012. In 2016, many of those same votes are with Sanders.
In interviews with young Iowans on college campuses and at both Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders events over the past two months, Starting Line found this dynamic playing out all over the state.
“I’ve been finding a lot of students who like both,” Coe College freshman Wade Hill told Starting Line at a Paul event at a Cedar Falls bar in December. “A lot of Bernie Sanders supporters tell me, ‘Well, if he doesn’t get the nomination I’ll probably vote for Rand Paul.'”
Hill is the chapter president for Students for Rand at Coe College in Cedar Rapids. At that time in December they counted over 30 members in their group, while he said Marco Rubio had only a handful of supporters on campus. But he’s had difficulty bringing in more students due to Sanders’ popularity on campus.
“It’s been a challenge to fight back,” Hill said in his efforts to win over Sanders backers. “What I’ve found for some reason is at liberal arts colleges they say liberals are the open-minded ones, until you disagree with them. It’s been an uphill battle.”
Three issues in particular pull students to consider both Sanders and Paul: marijuana decriminalization, anti-NSA spying/Patriot Act and opposition to more Middle Eastern wars.
“I don’t think young people need to be put in jail for a mistake they make on marijuana,” Paul told Starting Line in Cedar Falls when asked about why young people are drawn to him. “I don’t think we should collect the phone records of young people. And I don’t think we should send our sons and daughters back to the Middle East for another war. If you ask young people about that, many of them are with me on that.”
His campus supporters agree.
“I was raised Republican and I turned more libertarian,” said Joe Romenesko, a University of Iowa sophomore studying international relations. “I love Rand’s policies on how he supports the free market, but also on legalizing marijuana, anti-NSA, anti-Middle East wars … I think the Iraq War was an absolute disaster.”
“I really like his foreign policy, we don’t have to be involved in everything,” agrees Travis Connor, a senior political science major at UNI. “Others are drawn to his ideas of criminal justice reform and legalizing drugs and ending the drug war.”
The problem is that Sanders is well-known for those views as well.
“When it comes to government surveillance, filibustering the Patriot Act, Rand was heading that up, but he had support from other Senators, including Bernie Sanders who voted against it from the start,” noted Drake Tesdall, a UNI junior supporting Sanders in the caucus.
Sanders and Paul obviously are far apart on economic issues, perhaps as far as any two candidates in the 2016 race can be. But it’s those similarities on social issues that attract some independents and libertarian-leaning students.
“Most people understand Libertarianism as economically conservative and socially liberal,” said Laurie Rice, a Cornell College alumnus who went back to campus to see Sanders speak there in December. She’s a Paul supporter who works for a libertarian think-tank in Washington, D.C. “I was very much into a lot of Sanders’ social liberal policies … Gay rights I’m fully for, they’re civil liberties. I loved [Sanders’] anti-war perspectives.”
“We focus a lot on similarities as a group,” said Romenesko of his efforts to pull back Sanders supporters at Iowa. “Socially we’re really on the same spot, it’s just economics that’s the exact opposite. There’s some people we can convince to come around to capitalism. College can’t be free for everyone, someone has to pay for it.”
“I have a few friends who supported Ron Paul in the past and are now with Bernie Sanders,” Connor, the UNI student, noted. “I believe it has a lot to do with their platform, it’s very similar. They’re seen as very anti-establishment. They’re more anarchist. There’s definitely a difference on economic policy.”
The tipping point for these independent students and former Ron Paul supporters may have a lot less to do with the issues, and much more to do with the personality and campaign styles of the two candidates. Sanders has built a lot of his appeal on his outsider persona, complete with the wild hair, a cranky professor personality and a loud, boisterous speaking style at his packed rallies. Rand, on the other hand, may have tried to over-correct from his father’s more bizarre antics.
“A lot of the liberty people that I know, there’s a lot for Rand, but I feel like Rand just has not generated this enthusiasm that Ron did,” explained Raymond Starks, a senior at Drake University who supports Jeb Bush. “Rand I also feel like is just not as excited about campaigning as Ron Paul was. Rand Paul is a lot more conservative than Ron Paul was, and it may just be a personality thing. He seems a lot more conservative in his messaging. Trying to bridge that gap between libertarians and conservatives, he seemed to lose some of that core constituency.”
Drake University professor Jennifer Konfrst has noticed the same thing from many of her politically-engaged students.
“I had a group of uncommitted students return from a Rand Paul event on campus in the fall, and they were not as connected with the candidate as one would think,” Konfrst said. “They expected more talk about issues relevant to them – issues regarding personal liberties and freedoms with regard to social issues. Instead they said they heard primarily a stump speech. One said it was a speech he could have given anywhere to any audience. Bottom line: they didn’t get a sense of enthusiasm from the candidate and because they had heard college students were excited about him, the contrast seemed even more stark.”
Adding to the disparity in enthusiasm, Sanders supporters on college campuses say they haven’t felt that Paul’s appeal has threatened their membership base at all.
“Honestly I don’t see much direct competition from them,” said Martin Wise, the president of the Sanders student group at UNI. “I haven’t had any challenges come to meetings, anything like that. Do they appeal to certain of the same people? Yes, but I haven’t felt the heat from it too much. It’s not something I feel like I need to directly address, we haven’t been losing members to them.”
Paul’s visibility on campuses also simply doesn’t compare, according to many students Starting Line spoke with.
“I don’t see Rand Paul supporters that much, I see Bernie Sanders people everywhere,” mentioned Emily Cox, a UNI junior backing Martin O’Malley.
“I think people see Bernie as more of a genuine advocate for people,” added Starks. “I think those people who would go for an outsider like Ron Paul, who had some positions that were very outside of the mainstream, younger voters chose Bernie Sanders over Rand because partially Rand’s social conservatism, partially his messaging and partially his enthusiasm he has on the campaign trail versus his father.”
Rand Paul may never have seriously competed for the Republican nomination, considering the amount of contenders, the rise of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz and Paul’s own limitations as a candidate. But had Sanders not stolen away the excitement of so many young people that may have been pre-disposed to Paul’s libertarian lean on social issues, he almost certainly would have performed better in the polls and remained more in the conversation. And he likely wouldn’t have gotten booted from the Republican debate right before Iowa, a death sentence to every other candidate who faced the same demotion.
Paul does have a message to those young people thinking of caucusing for Sanders.
“I think when people offer you something for free, you ought to think a little more deeply about it and say, no really, who’s going to pay for it,” Paul told Starting Line. “Somebody’s going to pay for it. So I think Bernie Sanders’ offer of socialism, while it may sound benign on the surface, really there’s an implication of force, there’s an implication of a threat of violence because he’s going to have to take that from someone. It doesn’t just mysteriously appear out of nowhere. And I think college students, they’re interested in things but I don’t think they’re naive to think the government can give them free stuff.”
Unfortunately for Paul, that pitch has fallen on deaf ears among the young people of Iowa. Whether it’s more the message or the messenger, Paul’s likely demise and withdrawal soon after the Iowa Caucus will have a lot more to do with Bernie Sanders than any of his Paul’s Republican opponents.
by Pat Rynard