Monday, February 22, 2010

Reading into the 2010 CPAC Straw Poll

One-time Libertarian presidential candidate and current Republican US Representative Ron Paul of Texas pulled an upset when he finished first in the CPAC’s presidential straw poll with an impressive 31%, outdistancing former Massachusetts governor and 2008 presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who came in second-place with 22%.

Romney ran first in last year’s CPAC straw poll with 20% and also came in first in 2008 after he ended his presidential campaign at the annual gathering of conservative activists while Paul far outperformed his previous placings, running 4th with 10% in 2008 and 3rd in 2009 with 13%.

So what can be read into these results?

Not to throw a pail of cold water on Paulistas but the CPAC straw poll is hardly reflective of the electorate that will determine President Barack Obama’s principal opponent in 2012.

For example, a majority of CPAC straw poll participants were 25 years old or younger while individuals above the age of 55 cast only 10% of straw poll ballots.

And there is the gender gap: roughly two out of three participants in the CPAC straw poll were male.

Also former Alaska governor and GOP 2008 vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin and ex-Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, both favorites of social conservatives who poll near the top of all scientific Republican surveys, fared poorly.

Neither Palin nor Huckabee addressed the conference, with the Baptist minister questioning the conference’s legitimacy despite the presence of former Vice-President Dick Cheney and a number of other national party leaders and federal and state officials.

Huckabee accused the event of being hijacked by libertarians and described it as “pay-for-play” venue where candidates can buy positioning for the straw poll.

Though the CPAC results in no way reflect the field of play in any state caucus or primary awarding delegates in 2012, the straw poll is relevant.

CPAC is as close to an annual national event for conservatives, with the regional Republican leadership conferences being more representative of the party faithful. And even those are hardly ideal political barometers.

One of the big criticisms about the 2006 Southern Republican Leadership Conference straw poll was how the results reflected parochialism rather than how Republican state and county leaders truly felt about President George W. Bush’s potential successor.

The 2006 SRLC was held in Memphis and packed with Tennessee Republicans so it should not have surprised anyone that the big winner was none other than Tennessee US Senator Bill Frist.

The Paulistas can rightly point out that the 2010 CPAC event is indicative that young Republican activists are embracing Paul and his fiscal conservative message, as the Texas congressman jumped by 18 points with roughly the same age-range dominating participation.

Romney’s second-place showing earned him a front-page story in Monday’s USAToday but also revealed that his standing with the CPAC crowd has slipped. Romney went through great pains to portray his unsuccessful 2008 run in the same light as Ronald Reagan’s failed 1976 bid. Ending his candidacy at CPAC in 2008 was supposed to reinforce his conservative credentials. It seems that gesture quit paying dividends last year.

Perhaps fiscal conservatives are starting to finally vent their displeasure with Romney’s universal health care legacy while serving as governor of Massachusetts now that ObamaCare has become the defining issue separating the national parties.

If that is indeed the case, Paul could potentially do to Romney from the fiscal conservative angle in 2012 what Huckabee did to Romney from the social conservative side in 2008.

One of Paul’s mistakes from his 2008 campaign was his refusal to engage his opponents, instead running against “the establishment/the system/the Matrix”.

This put him off on a remote island, shunned by media outlets and his fellow candidates. And in politics, the cruelest insult is to be ignored. Romney could be the perfect fall guy Paul needs to make his bones that further establish his credibility/legitimacy.

Though he didn’t get the same press Paul and Romney did, outgoing Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty should be satisfied with the CPAC results. The low-key state executive who has never been accused of being a mesmerizing orator received a respectable 6% to finish in 4th place just behind Palin and besting better known GOP figures such as Huckabee and ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Pawlenty showed that he gained some traction with those rare CPAC “swing voters”, those being attendees who didn’t already have their mind made up about 2012 before they registered for the 2010 conference.

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