Poll: Rand Paul's support slipping among tea partiers?

A nice catch by WaPo’s Aaron Blake. Obvious caveats: It’s just one poll and tea party subsamples are necessarily small and prone to large margins of error. But as we get closer to the primaries and Paul breaks with conservative orthodoxy in ever more interesting ways, his standing on the right will be closely watched. This is just one data point, but do note it.

And indeed, it seems actual tea partiers are apparently noticing that Paul isn’t exactly their cup of tea. The new McClatchy-Marist College poll of the 2016 GOP presidential primary shows Paul’s share of the tea party vote dropping from 20 percent in April to 7 percent today — tied for fifth. Cruz, meanwhile, leads this demographic with 15 percent.

Similarly, an NBC News/Marist College poll of the Iowa GOP caucuses last month showed Paul leading Cruz and tied for first overall. But while Cruz’s support was almost completely among tea partiers, Paul actually did no better among that segment than he did overall. He was tied with Rick Santorum among tea party supporters.

Both of these polls have small sample sizes and shouldn’t be taken as gospel, but it’s notable that Paul doesn’t appear as reliant on tea party support as the other big supposed tea party candidate, Cruz. That’s by design. Paul is reaching out to the minority groups and religious conservatives for a reason; he knows he’s not the tea party-est of the tea partiers and that he can’t/won’t rely on their votes to deliver the GOP nomination in 2016.

The raw number is less interesting than the trend. Paul could make up eight percent in a primary campaign in one especially good week. But he’s trending downward, at least as far as Marist can tell. How come? Cruz, obviously, is gobbling up some of his support. He’s an orthodox conservative, just as most tea partiers are; whatever else Rand may be, he’s not orthodox. The higher Cruz’s profile gets, the more Rand will suffer on the right unless/until Cruz declares he’s not running. It could also be, of course, that Paul’s piled up a few too many heresies lately irrespective of what Cruz has been up to. Righties might indulge him a few breaks with convention but lately it seems like his agenda is nothing but breaks — he’s pushing sentencing reforms, criticizing the police for military-style riot control, and walking the usual tightrope on foreign interventions. At some point, the idea sets in that he’s not “one of us” and suddenly he’s tied in a 2016 primary poll of tea partiers with Chris Christie and actually trailing Jeb Bush.

One related problem for Rand that tends to be overlooked, I think, is the attitudinal difference between him and Cruz. It’s not merely that Cruz is more in line with conservative orthodoxy; it’s that he has the right enemies. I mentioned that the other day when I posted that little game of word association Paul played with a reporter in Kentucky. When asked what word came to mind when Chris Christie is mentioned, he smirked and said “bridges.” When asked what word came to mind when Obama is mentioned, he didn’t say “IRS” or “executive overreach” or “ObamaCare” or “Benghazi” or “Fast & Furious” or any of the other 8,000 things that set tea partiers off about The One. He said “affable but ineffectual.” And I understand why he said it — he’s not going to throw a roundhouse at the first black president in the middle of courting black voters — but it’s impossible to imagine Cruz responding the same way. He would have laid Obama out because he knows that’s what his base wants and he’s superb at delivering it. Nor is it just Obama whom Rand’s gone a bit soft on. He endorsed Mitch McConnell and defended Thad Cochran’s tactics of wooing Democratic voters to win a Republican primary. One thing tea partiers cherish about Cruz is that establishmentarians hate him and Cruz seems to relish it. Rand doesn’t; on the contrary, he’s gone out of his way to make nice with them. There’s obviously strategy there too given his fears of being marginalized in the primary as a kook and outspent by an establishment opponent, but don’t be surprised if some tea partiers react badly to it.

And yet, and yet, if Cruz decides not to run and to endorse Paul instead, he’d almost certainly be the tea-party consensus choice and a legit contender for the nomination, no? He may not be their favorite anymore but he’s not anathema.