03/17/2014 09:02 am ET Updated May 17, 2014

Rand Paul: Yes, He's Really the Frontrunner

Sen. Rand Paul, a first-term senator from Kentucky, surprised more than a few pundits when he topped one of the first major polls surveying voters' feelings on the 2016 Republican presidential primary. This poll-leading position is something his father, Ron, a frequent candidate for president, never held. And, even though it's still early, I think that there's a good case that Paul's early support may turn into something real. In other words, he's a legitimate frontrunner.

Let me say first, however, that I'm not a Paul booster. As a hawkish sort, I'm skeptical of his foreign policy views. I also wish he would come out in support of marriage equality. And I think very little of his support for the gold standard. That said, I admire a lot of the work he has done on mandatory minimum sentences, government spending, privacy, and government transparency. He's someone I could certainly see myself supporting in a general election. I think a lot of other Republicans feel this way too. Getting national defense conservatives on his side, it's true, is going to require some changes to his foreign policy positions and he'll probably have to make it clear that he's not serious about the gold standard to get real business community support too.

But neither his positions nor his current position in the very early polls mean much. Plenty of initial frontrunners for presidential nominations (Howard Dean and Rudy Giuliani) have flamed out on the campaign trail. Plenty of candidates who seemed to have "perfect" positions very much in line with the party base have also failed to get their parties nominations. But at least on the Republican side, something has mattered a lot more: having a political network. Except in 1964 -- when Lyndon Johnson trounced Barry Goldwater -- every Republican who has won an open nomination in anything like a modern primary process has had a preexisting state network of contacts in place. In most cases, they've built such networks through a previous run for President -- Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, John McCain, Mitt Romney, and all had previous campaigns under their belts. George W. Bush, meanwhile, had access to his father's preexisting political network.

The democratic, grassroots nature of the Republican nominating process means that even candidates willing to spend essentially limitless sums of money (i.e. Steve Forbes) just can't gain traction or win states. To make a very broad generalization, the organizations that have power in the conservative movement are small and local. The groups that make up the Democratic coalitions -- unions, government workers, business that relies on the government, environmentalists -- tend to have central leadership and even formal organizations like the League of Conservation voters and AFL/CIO that decide who they will throw their muscle behind. The ones that are most important in the Republican primaries -- churches, local business groups, small and medium-sized businesses -- tend to be decentralized. There are, of course, exceptions to this: the NRA, for example, provides a central nexus of information and influence to (mostly Republican) gun rights supporters that's far more influential amongst their constituency than any environmental organization is amongst environmentalists. But the broad generalization does hold up.

And Ron Paul, if nothing else, did build a network of county, city and ward leaders all over the country. It's one his son can tap. Indeed, there's a good case that only one other likely candidate, Rick Santorum, can claim a similar state-by-state network. And he's far behind Paul in any poll. That puts Rand Paul in very good shape. There's a real chance that he and a chosen running mate could command the top of the ballot in 2016.