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If Rand Paul is going to win, he needs to make libertarians hate him

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Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Sen. Rand Paul has a problem: the things he'll need to do to get his just-announced campaign for president off the ground with the core of the Republican Party are likely to infuriate his core libertarian base.

Paul's basic difficulty running as a libertarian-esque candidate for the GOP nomination is that most Republicans are conservatives, not libertarians. Paul has tried to mitigate that by on, some issues, tacking to the party's center: talking up his discomfort with same-sex marriage, for example, and softening his plan to cut to defense spending. The problem, though, is that Rand's hard-core libertarian supporters aren't used to this kind of compromise. This bit, from Reason editor Nick Gillespie, illustrates the problem perfectly:

And let's be clear: It [going soft on defense spending] ain't gonna help at all with libertarians who see in Paul their best hope for a major party politician whom they would vote for in a presidential race. Paul toys with lower-case libertarians at his own peril, as it's this group that could well provide the difference not just in Republican primaries but a general election. If he can energize libertarian-leaning Republicans and younger voters who otherwise would never think twice about the GOP, he could definitely blow past the genuinely uninspiring lot of Central Casting governors and senators who likely even have trouble rousing their paid employees to show up to work each Monday.

The libertarian movement in the United States is not used to supporting candidates who compromise their core beliefs. In fact, they see both the Democrats and Republicans as terribly corrupt — and some believe, as Gillespie seems to, that a libertarian who really stuck to his guns could win the presidency.

But that's almost certainly not true. Libertarians are a very small part of the American electorate. The Republican Party activists and operatives who play a critical role in deciding the primary nominee wouldn't go for someone who refused to give at least some sops to social conservatives and hawks. Paul needs to compromise at least somewhat, but at least some portion of his true base will get mad at him every time he does.

That's the trouble of trying to build a mainstream campaign on the backs of outsiders: they still think like outsiders.

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