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Can Libertarian-Leaning Rand Paul Really Win the GOP Nomination?

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul announced his candidacy for presidency on Tuesday. Will his unconventional appeal be enough to overcome traditional GOP powers?

04.07.15 2:43 PM ET

Sen. Rand Paul has officially announced he’s running for president. But can a libertarian-leaning candidate win the Republican nomination and ultimately the presidency?

In a political world dominated by the liberal-conservative divide, there are many doubters. But there’s growing evidence that Paul can broaden the Republican base and appeal to the broad center of the electorate.

The Republican base may be divided into establishment, tea party, Christian right, and libertarian wings. Paul starts out with a strong base in the libertarian wing, which gave his father, Representative Ron Paul, 21 percent of the Iowa Caucus vote and 23 percent of the New Hampshire Primary in 2012. With his strong opposition to taxes and spending and his book, The Tea Party Goes to Washington, he’s also well positioned for the tea party vote. His opposition to abortion rights will make him acceptable to religious conservatives as the field narrows.

The wild card may be who can attract voters who don’t usually vote in Republican primaries. Paul’s stands on military intervention, marijuana, criminal justice reform, and the surveillance state give him a good shot at getting independents and young people to come out for him.

The race could come down to former Florida governor Jeb Bush as the establishment candidate against the last standing insurgent candidate, and Paul is, as pundit Peter Beinart wrote recently, “as bold as any reformist in the race.”

Political observers usually talk about liberals, conservatives, and moderates. But not all voters fit into those boxes. Every year Gallup divides the public into liberal, conservative, libertarian, and populist. In the 2014 survey the firm classified 27 percent of respondents as conservative and 24 percent as libertarian. Paul has the libertarian field all to himself.

Indeed, a 2006 Zogby poll for the Cato Institute asked respondents, “Would you describe yourself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal?” Fully 59 percent said yes, and only 27 percent said no. That’s a huge untapped market for a candidate who can cut across red-blue barriers.

Events of the past few years have pushed voters in a libertarian direction, causing some observers to talk about a “libertarian moment” in American politics. The financial crisis, the Wall Street bailouts, the $18 trillion national debt, and Obamacare created the tea party. The revelations about spying and surveillance since 2013 have caused grave concerns about privacy. Less traumatically, growing support for gay marriage and marijuana legalization shows the strength of libertarian attitudes in a country founded on the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The small band of neoconservatives who dominate conservative punditry have tried to ignore or dismiss Paul’s chances on the grounds that his mildly non-interventionist foreign policy will make him unacceptable to Republican voters. They need to read more polls. Last June 75 percent of Americans, and 63 percent of Republicans, told CBS News/New York Times pollsters that the Iraq war wasn’t worth the costs. Seventy percent of Republicans opposed military action in Syria. A massive Pew Research Center survey in December 2013 found that 52 percent of respondents, the highest number ever, said the United States “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.”

The brutal rise of the Islamic State has made many Americans, including more Republicans, more hawkish. But nine months from now, when Republicans start voting in Iowa and New Hampshire, they’re likely to be tired of endless wars and to notice that 15 years of military intervention under President Bush, President Obama, and Secretary of State Clinton have left the Middle East in chaos. As the only skeptic about promiscuous intervention running in the GOP primaries, Paul has a chance to gain support from the war-weary.

Rand Paul is trying something different in a Republican presidential race. He yields to no other candidate in his opposition to taxes, spending, debt, regulation, and Obamacare. But he also talks to Silicon Valley about government spying, and African-American audiences about racial bias in the drug war, and college students about both.

After the 2012 election Los Angeles Times columnist James Rainey wrote that the country is mildly “left on social issues and right on economics…. a center-libertarian nation.”

No other candidate is trying to appeal directly to that center-libertarian vote. That’s the big new idea that Rand Paul will test.