Let’s do a thought experiment. It is 2016 and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul has just won the New Hampshire primary after eking out a respectable third in Iowa despite the damage done by his people’s brief and disastrous control of the state party.
On the horizon is the Nevada primary where the libertarian-ish senator is expected to finish strong. But before he gets to Nevada he must perform well enough in the “First in the South” South Carolina primary to assuage his critics and detractors from the notion that he cannot attract enough evangelical and military support to win a general election.
This is the moment when Paul strategists gulp as a cold chill runs down their spines. Many a Paul presidential campaign has broken on the shores of the Grand Strand and the majestic western hills of South Carolina. The former has deep ties and affections for the U.S. military and the latter is Bob Jones University country, enough said.
In 2008 his father scored a paltry 3.7 percent as hawk McCain and Preacher Huckabee combined to pull over 63 percent and all of the state’s delegates. Ron Paul did better in 2012 but still managed only a distant fourth despite strong lead-in performances in Iowa (21.5 percent) and New Hampshire (22.9 percent), finishing behind Gingrich, Romney and Santorum with 13 percent.
Rand Paul’s presidential ambitions cannot afford a train wreck at that critical moment. Without a robust, well funded and shrewd South Carolina strategy that can deliver at least a strong second or third and prove that he is not a libertarian region candidate (read: New Hampshire, Nevada and Alaska) and that he can perform well in the South, he will be watching the inauguration with 99 other senators.
Early polling of his southern appeal is not reassuring. He is pulling just 6 percent in South Carolina behind a slew of candidates real and imagined. In Florida, the only other southern state with substantial early polling, he does even worse, sitting at a scary low 4.3 percent according to the Real Clear Politics average. Things don’t get better when you look at the sparse polls from his native state of Texas (7th at 4 percent), North Carolina (5th at 8 percent) and Virginia (6th at 6 percent). While it remains relatively early, these numbers belie the fact that he already enjoys national name recognition over 75 percent, among the highest in the GOP field.
A lot has been made of the balancing act that he must pull off in order to maintain the support of his father’s libertarian devotees. Much less has been said about his need to excite the evangelicals and defense conservatives that make up the bulk of the GOP throughout the south and in South Carolina in particular.
In this way Ted Cruz’s campaign launch at Liberty University was a brilliant play that signaled to evangelicals that he is the conservatarian that they can love. Cruz has long been criticized in libertarian circles for being too hawkish; a reputation that can only help him in the broader GOP. Thus Paul finds himself painted into a corner.
For a native Texan and Kentucky senator to be starting so far behind in these key southern states may call his viability into question, especially among donors. No Republican can win the presidency without sweeping the south. It starts with the South Carolina primary and unless the Paul camp can find a message and a means to excite evangelicals and defense conservatives, it could well end there too.