Senator Rand Paul (R-KY)

The surprise victory of Senator Thad Cochran’s (R-MS) may have provided some of the best evidence for how Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) could gain a big advantage in the 2016 Republican presidential primary.

There are basically two ways to win a primary election. The first is to convince a plurality of traditional primary voters to support you. The second is to expand the electorate by convincing a bunch of people who support you to vote in the primary for the first time. Significantly expanding the electorate is dramatically harder than it sounds, which is why most campaigns focus on the first strategy.

During his primary run off, though, Cochran proved expanding the electorate is actually possible given just the right circumstances. Turnout was actually up in the runoff compared to the first round and analysis indicates it was likely a big increase in African-American voters in the runoff which helped put Cochran over the top.

Most importantly, Cochran benefited from having the optimal conditions for this strategy. There wasn’t an significant contest on the Democratic side that day, and Mississippi allows open primaries giving him a large pool of potential voters to target. Cochran was able to take advantage of these conditions by making a very clear case to non-traditional Republican primary voters why supporting him over Chris McDaniel would make a real difference in their lives. The focus was on how Cochran has used his seniority to bring benefits to Mississippi.

A similar dynamic could exist in the 2016 presidential primary

Hillary Clinton could secure the Democratic nomination extremely early, giving Republican presidential candidates a bigger pool of potential voters to try to attract in the open primary states. Of all the Republican candidates only Rand Paul is really positioning himself to make a case to some of these voters for why supporting him over all the other Republican options could make an actual difference.

With a series of big actions Paul has made himself a congressional leader on what some have called the civil rights issue of our time, criminal justice/drug policy reform. He isn’t just noticeably better than the rest of the Republican field on the issue, but better than many elected Democrats. In addition there are a few other issues, like opposition to military action and government surveillance, where Paul stands apart from the rest of the field.

Cocharn didn’t need to convince African-Americans voters he would actually be better than a Democrat, just that him winning the primary would be much better than the alternative. The same could apply to Paul.

Paul doesn’t need to convince voters in open primary states that he would be a better president than Hillary Clinton, just that helping him win the GOP primary would alone make a positive difference. Since him securing the nomination should greatly increase the chances of some of his bipartisan criminal justice reform bills moving through Congress and reshaping the national debate, he will have a legitimate case to make if he wants to.

Photo by Gage Skidmore under Creative Commons license