Rand Paul's campaign actually showed faint signs of life in the last ABC/Washington Post poll, where his 5 percent showing has him within striking distance of Jeb Bush and every other candidate besides Donald Trump and Ben Carson. That's little consolation considering the poll shows Carson at 20 percent and rising sharply and Trump doing the same at 33 percent.
There has been a lot of digital ink and hot air expended on why Paul fell from the GOP lead as "the most interesting man in politics" to a long shot candidate fighting for scraps with the Walkers, Bushes and other members of the rejected "establishment." There have been reports of infighting among the campaign staff, Paul's failure to energize his father's activist base and even his reluctance to woo big money donors.
One would think that last "shortcoming" would be appealing to voters fed up with Washington insiders, but apparently not so for Paul.
The most prevalent theory is that in trying to avoid alienating mainstream Republican voters while championing his father's libertarian platform, Paul has alienated both groups: libertarians and traditional Republicans. That sounds good, but it doesn't add up.
The painful reality for Ron Paul's supporters is they represent an electoral rounding error. They are loud, proud and committed to the libertarian message, but in the end they are two million votes. The GOP nominee won the nomination in a landslide in two straight elections without a single vote from them. Rand Paul knows that will be true this time around, too. Thus his attempt to woo more mainstream voters.
Paul's supporters scratch their heads at this. If Republican voters are truly fed up with the establishment GOP leadership's failure to cut government spending, reinstate constitutional limits on the executive branch and federal government in general, and restore some semblance of a free market economy, why isn't Paul their guy? He's better on every one of those issues than any candidate who has run for the nomination in decades.
The answer is Republican voters don't really want those things. They're fed up with the GOP leadership, but not because it's failed to make the government smaller or less powerful. They're fed up because it hasn't made the government bigger, in the areas they want it to be bigger.
Think about what has resonated with Republican voters. It's been exactly the opposite of what Paul proposes. Trump and Carson supporters have responded enthusiastically to promises of a bigger, more powerful federal government, led by a strong-willed leader who will trample constitutional limits on his power, run a command economy and pursue an activist foreign policy.
They want more border security and less immigration. Whether illegal or legal, the real resentment towards immigrants is the competition they bring for jobs. Crime and welfare make good headlines, but deep down everyone knows this is just protectionism in the labor market. It's the opposite of free markets.
Second only to his immigration stance is Trump's protectionist stance on international trade. Trump views the world economy the same way 18th century mercantilists viewed it: as a zero sum game with winners and losers. His answer? Higher taxes, in the form of tariffs, to protect less efficient domestic manufacturing. Adam Smith wrote his seminal economic treatise to refute precisely this world view.
Ben Carson's most popular position is the mainstream Republican "strengthen the military" mantra. Republican voters want more money spend on the military, even though it remains larger than the next 10 largest national military establishments combined. Contrary to current Republican talking points, the U.S. military has not been cut in decades. Sequestration only decreased the increases in spending. Actual spending still went up every year. Republican voters don't care. They want more. Let's face it. No amount would be too much.
Trump says he'll dramatically increase spending on the VA. Like all government programs, the VA has serious problems. But Republicans seem unable to apply the logic they apply to federal spending on education or civilian health care to federal spending on health care for veterans. If it's for the veterans, they're all for spending more. Again, no amount is too much.
Even Rand Paul's stance on NSA data collection is unpopular with these "small government" voters. Regardless of whether you ultimately agree with Chris Christie, Rand Paul bested Christie on this issue in the first debate. Christie based his whole argument for bulk collection on his experience in the FISA court getting warrants on individuals. Paul pointed out the error of logic and Christie offered no substantive response.
Rhetorically, it was a knockout. Republican voters didn't care. Fox News told them Christie won the debate and GOP voters were happy to believe it. Why? Because no amount of power given to the federal government in the "War on Terror' is too much. That's how they really think. "Terrorists don't deserve due process." Counterintuitive? So, what?
Most importantly, there is nothing Trump or Carson has said that remotely implies they would reduce the reach of the federal government in any area whatsoever or cut federal spending overall. If they have, no one is talking about it. Find a single social media post about how Trump or Carson are going to get the federal government out of any area of our lives. You won't.
Forget style, Washington insider vs. outsider, or anything else the media is saying about why Trump and Carson are so far ahead. The real reason is they're promising a bigger, more interventionist federal government that will wield massive federal power on things Republican voters like, constitutional limits be damned.
Rand Paul's sincere conviction to reduce the size and power of the federal government doesn't have a prayer in this political environment. Until the electorate changes, neither does individual liberty.