Rand Paul, Future Also-Ran

The nomination process is stacked against random winners.
The libertarian label isn't an advantage. Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The Week's Joe Gandelman makes the worst case yet for Rand Paul as a viable presidential candidate. His piece offers a good opportunity to explode some myths.

Get the momentum — and run with it: ... [H]is first truly critical test would be to win the New Hampshire primary, where candidates with independent streaks often thrive, and which gets massive media coverage and can launch or destroy a candidate's presidential dreams.

The last candidate who seemed to be an also-ran before New Hampshire but went on to win the nomination was George McGovern in 1972. The last one to go from also-ran to serious contender thanks to a New Hampshire surprise was Gary Hart in 1984. That's no coincidence. In the modern era, candidates don't win with random early results and momentum. Instead, nominations are the result of a collective decision by those who have the greatest interest in the party and the most at stake: politicians, activists, campaign and governing professionals, and party-aligned interests and media . If an unexpected candidate pops up and wins an early contest, these party actors will send clear and effective signals he or she isn't acceptable. See Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich.

Woo disaffected and millennial voters: Many voters are disgusted with traditional and predictable partisan politics.

Disaffected voters don't turn out for primary elections. The people who do, whatever their age, aren't "disgusted with" partisan politics - they are the strong partisans. Moreover, Gandelman argues that Paul would be the first real libertarian nominee. That's not an advantage: Hardly anyone identifies as libertarian, and candidates with that label rarely win Republican primaries at any level. If there are hidden libertarians out there, they aren't voters, and there's no reason to believe they'll suddenly appear in 2016.

Hope the competition blows it: The GOP's potential 2016 field is both deep and broad, but there is no candidate without flaws ... To win the nomination, Paul will have to get a little lucky — and count on his competitors to succumb to their flaws, while he rises above his.

That's a good strategy for a bland candidate who is acceptable to all factions in a cycle with few plausible nominees. It was the winning approach for Mitt Romney in 2012, John McCain in 2008, John Kerry in 2004, Bob Dole in 1996 and Michael Dukakis in 1988. It was a plausible strategy for Tim Pawlenty in 2012, because he would have benefited had Romney stumbled badly early on. Unfortunately for Paul, he's neither bland nor generally acceptable, and the 2016 field of plausible Republican nominees is unusually large.

There's more. Most of the political news media rightly ignored the meaningless straw poll at the recent CPAC conference. Gandelman interprets Paul's victory as a sign of strength. He also cites early national polling, which at this point reflects little more than name recognition in most cases. It might be significant if Hillary Clinton has a huge lead over Vice President Joe Biden; it doesn't matter which of the dozen or so little-known Republican candidates takes a turn at the top of the heap.

Think Paul has a chance? Then either convince me that he's acceptable to the Republicans who support the policies he opposes - or show me that those people have little clout. He can win only if one of the above is true. These days, you can't be nominated by accident.

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