As expected, Rep. Ron Paul (R., Texas) won the annual straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, an early, though unscientific, indicator of conservative favor as the 2012 presidential campaign cycle kicks into gear. Paul, with a 30 percent plurality, topped numerous high-profile White House contenders. He finished seven points ahead of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who placed second. All other candidates finished with less than ten percent of the vote: former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson snagged six percent, as did Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich won five percent.
For Paul, whose 2008 presidential bid stirred thousands of libertarian-leaning conservatives to the polls, it was repeat performance: He won the CPAC contest last year, buoyed by strong grassroots support. This year, Paul’s highly-organized supporters followed a similar on-site strategy, rallying for the 75 year-old throughout the three-day gathering via panel sessions and heavy politicking in the lobby of the sprawling Marriott Wardman Park. As Paul remarked in his Friday speech, “I’m glad to see the revolution is continuing.”
CPAC brass played down the results. “The straw poll is not a poll; the straw poll is entertainment for the people that are here,” says David Keene, the former president of the American Conservative Union, in an interview with National Review Online. “He won it last time because he was the only one running. Even I could win it if I was the only one running. He is the only one who seems to focus on it exclusively.”
Grover Norquist, the influential taxpayer advocate, tells NRO that Paul’s win is far from meaningless. “If you are running for president, you need to be able to connect with the activists,” he says. “This is a measure of how connected you are to activists, especially the young activists. Some people talk about the money primary — this is the activist primary.”
Paul’s growing following on the right, Norquist predicts, could shake up the 2012 race, especially on issues championed by the Texas congressman, like monetary policy. “It’s like 1988, when Pat Robertson ran for president,” he observes. “Robertson brought a whole collection of people into the Republican party.” While acknowledging that some Republicans find Paul supporters “strange” for their dogged focus on the Federal Reserve, the fresh faces, Norquist says, are “very healthy” for the future of the GOP.
Alexander McCobin, a Paul supporter and founder of Students for Liberty, agrees. “This shows that libertarianism really is what Ronald Reagan said: the heart and soul of conservatism,” he tells us. “Libertarianism — belief in individual liberty, limited government, free markets — these are the principles that should be defining conservatism. If the GOP decides to ignore that lesson, they’re going to be hurt.”
At CPAC, Paul’s maneuvers were not limited to hallway organizing. The rail-thin congressman also generated sparks for his criticism of U.S. foreign policy — a rarity at CPAC. From the dais, facing thousands of conservatives, he shamed both parties for supporting former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. “The people don’t like us propping up their dictators,” he said. “No more than we would like it if a foreign country propped up a dictator in our country.” He also had strong words about ladling cash to U.S. allies. “Foreign aid is taking money from the poor people of rich countries and giving it to the rich people of poor countries,” he argued.
Nearly 11,000 conservative activists attended the conference. However, two politicians with vocal backing from attendees — Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee — did not show, making the straw poll a notable, though hardly definitive, glimpse at the emerging field of candidates. The ballot box was also closed on Friday afternoon, hours before two prominent GOP governors, Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, spoke, so Paul’s win, though newsworthy, may not carry too much weight in the run-up to 2012.
UPDATE: Full results:
Rep. Ron Paul (R., Texas) — 30%
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney — 23%
Former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson — 6%
Gov. Chris Christie (R., N.J.) — 6%
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich — 5%
Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty — 4%
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R., Minn.) — 4%
Gov. Mitch Daniels (R., Ind.) — 4%
Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin — 3%
Former business executive Herman Cain — 2%
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee — 2%
Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum — 2%
Sen. John Thune (R., S.D.) — 2%
Amb. Jon Huntsman — 1%
Gov. Haley Barbour (R., Miss.) — 1%
Other — 5%
Undecided — 1%