For the last six months, one of the top stories of the 2016 election has been Jeb Bush’s ambitious plan to “lose the primary to win the general,” as he once put it. When it comes to actually watching that two-part strategy in action, however, we may be following the wrong candidate.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who raised his profile to new heights this week by forcing the temporary expiration of PATRIOT Act provisions governing NSA spying, has developed a fascinating split in national and state polls. On the one hand, he routinely outperforms his peers in general election matchups with Hillary Clinton, thanks to an impressive showing with independents. On the other hand, surveys of GOP voters show him at odds with his Republican rivals over foreign policy and national security issues, and his polling numbers are stagnant.
Around the Senate on Tuesday, supporters of the PATRIOT Act conceded defeat in their battle to extend the law as-is, capitulating to the House-passed USA Freedom Act that will place new limits on bulk collection of phone records (Paul opposed the bill for not going far enough, but took credit for pushing the debate toward his side). But the Patriot Act backers also claimed victory in the court of public opinion -- several members on Tuesday eagerly repeated the results of a new CNN poll finding 61% of respondents supported renewing the law’s surveillance measures -- including 73% of Republicans.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who is backing Paul for president but is his chief antagonist this week on NSA spying, fumbled for the numbers on his Blackberry for a moment during a press conference before reciting the top line from memory.
“I think Congress is misreading the public mood if they think Americans are concerned about the privacy implications,” McConnell said. He went on to label the USA Freedom Act a “resounding victory for those currently plotting against our homeland" in a floor speech.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, a supporter of newly-declared presidential candidate and South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, cited the numbers as well in a conversation with reporters about the bill.
“All I know is what I saw in the poll today,” he told msnbc. “Most Americans want the PATRIOT Act renewed in the present form. That can’t help any candidate that opposes that.”
Paul has argued that the public is on his side and other surveys have been less clear-cut. A poll from Morning Consult found a plurality supported extending PATRIOT Act provisions, but with some modifications, which is ultimately what happened on Tuesday with passage of the Freedom Act.
The CNN poll, however, comes after striking polling on the Iraq War, another issue where Paul has cranked his contrast with Republican hawks up to 11 over the last few weeks.
After Bush stumbled through a question on whether the 2003 invasion was worth it in retrospect, Paul reiterated his fierce opposition to deposing Saddam Hussein and went on to blame fellow Republicans in harsh terms for encouraging the rise of ISIS by supporting military interventions against other Middle East dictators.
According to a poll from Quinnipiac, the American public shared Paul’s view that Iraq was a disaster by a wide margin – 59% said it was the wrong decision. But the Republicans he needs to win over in the primary were another story – a whopping 62% of GOP-leaning respondents still supported the Iraq War.
With Republican voters increasingly concerned about ISIS, which is displacing even traditional economic issues in surveys of their priorities, this partisan wedge may be having an effect on Paul. A Bloomberg/Des Moines Register poll of GOP voters in first-in-the-nation caucus state Iowa found Paul’s favorable rating plummeting 9 points, a bigger drop than any other candidate polled. He stood at second place in the field overall with 10% support, well short of the 21% his father garnered in 2012. National polls paint a similar picture, with Paul stuck around 9% support in the latest RealClearPolitics average behind five other contenders.
But Paul’s campaign hopes have never rested solely on winning traditional Republicans – instead he’s argued that the GOP needs to bring in new voters among independents and even weak Democrats with a libertarian-focused message.
The good news for Paul is that his focus on issues ignored or opposed by more traditional Republicans appears to be paying off in polling. As Paul’s campaign noted in a memo on Tuesday, he regularly is the strongest Republican in surveys that test multiple possible nominees against Clinton thanks to his superior performance with independents.
The same CNN poll that found Paul’s NSA argument floundering found him effectively tied with Clinton, trailing her within the margin of error 48-47. By contrast, Clinton led Bush 51-43. That lines up with an NBC/WSJ poll last month that put Paul behind Clinton 47-44, better than any other Republican. Over the last several months, Quinnipiac has found Paul performs strongest in polls of a number of swing states as well, including Colorado, Virginia, Iowa, and Pennsylvania.
The usual caveats apply: It’s extremely early. There’s a gigantic unsettled primary field. Debates are coming, as are tens of millions of dollars of ads.
But one thing is clear: Paul’s rivals sense an opportunity to raise their status by tearing his down over national security issues. Candidates on the fringe of debate contention like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former New York Gov. George Pataki, and former Sen. Rick Santorum are picking fights with Paul over national security on a daily basis while top tier contenders like Bush look to distinguish themselves from his positions as well.
“It’s deeply disturbing to me that we’d give up the safeguards that have kept us safe,” Bush told reporters on Tuesday. “We’re safer today because of the Patriot Act. There are a few on the left and some on our team saying that it violates civil liberties. That’s not true. You can say it all you want, but it’s not true.”
Under fire for going too far in his own attacks, Paul on Monday walked back an accusation this week that his critics “secretly want there to be an attack on the United States so they can blame it on me,” a remark he said was “hyperbole.”
Paul can’t let his foot off the gas too much, however. With reports indicating Paul is struggling to match his rivals’ ultra-wealthy backers in part due to concerns over his foreign policy, he has to keep the libertarian small donors who backed his father’s presidential campaigns writing checks and transferring Bitcoins. Their dedicated volunteer work will buoy Paul immensely in the primaries and especially in caucuses like Nevada, where small, motivated packs of supporters can make a major difference. The question is whether keeping their spirits buoyed will serve as an anchor with Republican voters who sound increasingly wary of abandoning the party’s old playbook on confronting threats abroad.