The anti-establishment GOP rebel may very well be its future.

While Rand Paul’s name often appears on lists of leading Republican presidential nominees, his well-known libertarian streak is often cited as a prime reason why he most likely won’t be nominated. His National Security Agency opposition might make him popular on the Internet, but he’s the definition of a wild card.

Make no mistake about it: If history serves as a reliable precedent, the nomination won’t go to Paul. Indeed, the last non-establishment candidate to head the Republican national ticket was Barry Goldwater, whose upset over Nelson Rockefeller occurred more than 50 years ago (in the 1964 election). That said, there is a plausible path to victory that lies ahead for Paul, and it is worth exploring.

We can start with the fact that Paul, if not quite a libertarian himself, has long been described as “libertarian-ish” —and the Internet has long been a hotbed for libertarian activity. Back in 2007, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), father of Rand, shocked the political world by raising more than $6 million in a 24-hour period using an Internet-based fundraising tactic known as a “moneybomb,” wherein his campaign tapped into a nationwide network of grassroots supporters who shared his outspoken libertarian ideals. Despite minimal mainstream news coverage, this groundswell of online libertarianism was good enough to net Paul Sr. more than 1.2 million votes in the 2008 Republican presidential primaries. By 2012, that number had risen to more than 2.1 million.

In addition to helping him inherit some (if not all) of his father’s base of libertarian true believers, Rand Paul’s libertarian-ish stances on ending domestic spying, reforming the criminal justice system, and legalizing medical marijuana have made him one of the Republican Party’s most attractive candidates for Internet-savvy young people. Back in 2013, the Wall Street Journal characterized Paul’s 13-hour filibuster on the military’s drone program as an attempt to “fire up impressionable libertarian kids in their college dorms,” an assumption that Paul gleefully embraced in a subsequent editorial for the millennial news site Mic (where this author was working at the time) that proudly proclaimed, “I believe a Republican Party that is more tolerant and dedicated to keeping the government out of people’s lives as much as possible would be more appealing to the rising generation.”

For Paul to be nominated in 2016, he would need to maintain his bedrock of support among libertarian-leaning conservatives and young Republicans, even as he simultaneously makes sufficient inroads among traditional conservatives dissatisfied with the other candidates to pull off majorities in the early primary states—a tricky feat, no doubt, but hardly an impossible one. After all, his father placed a close third in the Iowa caucus last election, and Paul himself is currently leading in New Hampshire among Republicans under the age of 45. If mainstream Republican voters find themselves unable to unite behind a single establishment candidate by early 2016—and polls have consistently found them split between the likes of Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Scott Walker—then Paul’s clear edge among libertarians, and potential advantage among young voters, could be enough to propel him to the top of the GOP ticket next year.

 “I believe a Republican Party that is more tolerant and dedicated to keeping the government out of people’s lives as much as possible would be more appealing to the rising generation.” 

From there, of course, the challenge for Paul is getting elected.

This would also not be inconceivable, particularly to anyone familiar with the working-class voters who abandoned their traditionally Democratic Party allegiance to vote Republican in the 1980s, the so-called Reagan Democrats. “Resenting both the rich, who they believed to be virtually tax exempt, and the poor, who received welfare,” writes James Pontuso in the conservative Web journal First Principles, “many middle-class workers believed that the Democratic Party no longer represented them and so cast their votes for Reagan, whose pro-family and limited government policies appealed to their sense of values.” In light of Hillary Clinton’s well-known weakness with this demographic, Paul could win over these voters through his unique ability to be convincingly anti-Wall Street (which tends to support Clinton) while maintaining his party’s traditional conservative attitude on issues like affirmative action and welfare.

Paul could also pose a threat to Clinton from a quarter that has heretofore been unshakably Democratic—the black vote. On the surface, Clinton would seem to have insurmountable advantages with the African-American community: No Republican has won more than 15 percent of the black vote since 1964 (when the GOP nominated Sen. Barry Goldwater, who opposed that year’s landmark Civil Rights Act), and her husband Bill Clinton has long been especially beloved within the black community. At the same time, she has not benefited from the same enthusiasm that tends to greet her husband, while Paul has taken a host of positions specifically tailored to earn their support. He was outspoken in opposing police brutality in Ferguson, Mo., calling for America to “demilitarize the police,” and has condemned America’s prison system (which has the largest incarcerated population in the world) for being “full of black and brown kids because they don’t get a good attorney, they live in poverty, it’s easier to arrest them than to go to the suburbs.” As recently as last week Paul scathingly condemned the Clintons for supporting draconian anti-crime legislation that had put “a generation of black men in prison.” As Rev. Al Sharpton noted, “if [Paul] becomes the candidate… and if you don’t get a huge black turnout saying ‘We’re afraid [of him],’ that could be a pitfall for Democrats.”

Of course, none of these arguments are meant to be definitive. It is entirely possible that the Republican Party will follow tradition and nominate Bush, Walker, Rubio, or another neoconservative candidate with “safe” conservative stances on the major economic, social, and foreign policy questions of our time. Despite being held in suspicion by large portions of the grassroots base, quintessential establishmentarians like John McCain and Mitt Romney were nominated in the last two election cycles, and it is entirely possible that the same thing could happen again in 2016.

At the same time, the prospect of a Paul nomination—and with it, a Paul election—is not so outlandish as to be safely disregarded entirely. By speaking to a wing in his own party that has yet to produce its own nominee, and reaching out to voting blocs that haven’t supported a Republican in years, Paul has significant advantages that could ultimately put him over the top.

If nothing else, 2016 will shape up to a very interesting election year.

Photo via Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

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