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Lindsey Graham May Have Already Won

In presidential politics, there are two main ways a candidate can succeed: He or she can win the nomination. Or, he or she can highlight a specific policy or set of policies that otherwise might get ignored or marginalized.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who’s expected to officially announce he’s running for president Monday, is unlikely to join the first group, as I’ve explained previously. But he appears to fit nicely into the second category, as an advocate for an interventionist foreign policy and prioritizing national security.

But here’s the thing: A couple of years ago, it looked like the 2016 Republican field might need just such an advocate — the field was looking like it might be less hawkish than it had been in a long time. Now, even without Graham, the GOP field has plenty of hawks.

You might remember that the relatively dovish Sen. Rand Paul was leading primary polls in 2013. Part of that advantage was due to an isolationist shift among Republican rank and file. According to the Pew Research Center, only 38 percent of self-identified Republicans thought that America’s anti-terrorism policies had not gone far enough in 2013, and 43 percent thought those policies had gone too far in restricting civil liberties. Pew also found that 52 percent of Republicans thought we were doing too much to solve the world’s problems, while just 18 percent thought we were doing too little.

In 2013, Republican views on foreign affairs were looking more and more like Democrats’.

Back then, one could imagine other Republican candidates co-opting pieces of Paul’s message. Anti-interventionism might spread in the GOP’s 2016 field. Graham could have been the counter-weight, tapping into the Republican Party’s history as the more hawkish tribe in American politics. It was probably the same thought that uber-hawk John Bolton had when he was entertaining a run for president.

But Bolton didn’t enter the race. Why? Republican voters (and the majority of candidates) returned in 2014 to their hawkish roots. This shift coincided with the rise of the terrorist group Islamic State, which took control of a quarter of Iraq and a third of Syria last year and released widely circulated videos of beheadings, with victims including U.S. citizens. Republican lawmakers criticized President Obama for, among other things, referring to Islamic State as the “JV team” and not responding more forcefully to the threat.

And so Republican attitudes have flipped since 2013. According to Pew’s latest data, 57 percent of Republicans believe that U.S. anti-terrorism policies don’t go far enough in protecting the nation, and just 30 percent think we are going too far in restricting civil liberties. The percentage of Republicans who think we do too little to solve the world’s problems is up 28 percentage points, to 46 percent. The share who think we do too much is down to 37 percent.

Paul may have forced the expiration of parts of the Patriot Act late Sunday night, including the National Security Agency’s ability to collect telephone metadata, but his views haven’t spread to other Republican candidates. All three of the leading contenders have come out against Paul in his fight, even though House and Senate Republicans are a little more split. And Paul has fallen to sixth place nationally, his favorable ratings have dropped more than any other candidate in Iowa and he’s placed first in only one New Hampshire poll over the last year. Party actors in both Iowa and New Hampshire believe Paul is hurting himself with his positions on these issues.

Indeed, the other candidates seem to be well prepared for this shift. Look at where they stand on foreign policy and national security. I grabbed all the statements that has used to score each Republican candidate’s ideology and pulled out the ones on foreign policy. Graham really isn’t any more hawkish than the rest of the field.

Marco Rubio 13 out of 13
Rick Perry 8 out of 8
Scott Walker 6 out of 6
Carly Fiorina 5 out of 5
Rick Santorum 24 out of 25
Lindsey Graham 31 out of 33
Chris Christie 10 out of 11
Bobby Jindal 9 out of 10
Mike Huckabee 15 out of 17
Jeb Bush 14 out of 16
Ted Cruz 13 out of 15
George Pataki 4 out of 5
John Kasich 4 out of 7
Ben Carson 2 out of 7
Rand Paul 8 out of 37

Paul stands out as giving a dovish answer the vast majority of the time, but the three leading contenders for the nomination (Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Scott Walker) gave the dovish answer two times or fewer. The only candidate besides Paul who looks sort of dovish is Ben Carson, but there’s less data on him: OnTheIssues doesn’t collect every statement, and Carson has a short paper trail. Statements collected by The New York Times suggest he’s much more hawkish.

That isn’t to say everyone is an absolute hawk on every issue. For example, Graham wants U.S. boots on the ground to fight the Islamic State group — neither Bush nor Ted Cruz does. Rubio seems to be leaning toward a few troops, and Walker has most certainly not ruled it out. Dark horse John Kasich wants boots on the ground, as do Rick Perry and George Pataki. The point is that there are plenty of other voices arguing for Graham’s position.

None of this means Graham can’t enter the race and push his views. It’s just that doing so may be the equivalent of selling Yankees apparel outside of Yankee Stadium — it’s an in-demand product, but there’s plenty of other vendors. Graham is preaching to an electorate that has mostly come back around to his views on foreign policy and national security. And there are plenty of other candidates with similar positions, including some who stand a much better chance of winning the nomination.

Check out our live coverage of the second Republican debate.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.