For the second consecutive year, libertarian-leaning Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) breezed to victory Saturday in the CPAC straw poll — a sign of the intense following he enjoys and the waning relevance of the surveys.
The results this year were nearly identical to last year — Paul took 30 percent in 2011 and 31 percent in 2010 — and the response from the crowd was the same, as well.
Outgoing American Conservative Union Chairman David Keene was jeered by Paul enthusiasts as he sought to downplay the results.
“It is what it is. It’s a straw poll,” Keene said before introducing pollster Tony Fabrizio, who conducted the survey.
Fabrizio tried to put a positive spin on the survey that the organizers are plainly embarrassed about, noting before announcing the results that attendees agree upon the size of government being a top priority.
Yet, even before the pollster could disclose the news, someone in the audience yelled: “Ron Paul!” The congressman’s supporters let out a loud cheer while his detractors booed just as loudly.
The same pattern took place when Fabrizio actually announced that Paul had won except as the pollster begin to explain the results a man yelled: “Now you’re going to minimize it!”
The controversy in the weeks before this year’s CPAC was over whether a little-known gay conservative group would be allowed to have a booth. But the more pressing threat to the relevance of the venerable conservative confab, or at least its straw poll, is the continued dominance of Paul.
The 75-year-old congressman may run for president again, but his prospects for winning the GOP nomination are nil. Yet because he has an intense following among antiwar youths, and has supporters who are willing to organize his effort, the libertarian-leaning Paul dominates the balloting and renders the survey as largely irrelevant.
Mitt Romney was Paul’s nearest competition in the past two years, trailing the congressman by 9 percent last year and 7 percent this year.
Keene, who supported Romney in 2008 but has not committed for 2012, made the case to reporters after the results were announced that the former Massachusetts governor’s strong support as a second choice candidate “amazing” and said last year it was an “unreported story.”
Faring not as well are two Republicans who consistently poll near the top of many early presidential surveys: Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee. Both took less than 5 percent.
Indeed, the gathering has been hampered by the refusal of Palin and Huckabee, two of the party’s biggest draws, to attend over the past two years.
“CPAC has becoming increasingly more libertarian and less Republican over the last years,” Huckabee said last year by way of explaining why he skipped the event.
There is, however, little appetite among organizers to remove Paul from the ballot. Doing so would result in losing hundreds of fee-paying attendees and spark a backlash among an energized bloc of activists.
“I think CPAC would be diminished if we got into a censoring of what our message ought to be,” said Al Cardenas, who will oversee CPAC going forward as the new ACU chairman. “We’ll opt for the open door.”
But Cardenas acknowledged that he was troubled that Huckabee, Palin and Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who skipped this year’s gathering in solidarity with social conservatives upset about the presence of the gay group, weren’t present.
“We’ve got to fix it,” he said. “They’re part of the family. And when your relatives don’t come to Thanksgiving dinner, you’re disappointed.”
The strategy among conservatives seems clear: Downplay the straw poll without bad-mouthing CPAC.
“I don’t think the straw poll’s important,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.). “I think what’s important is the views that the activist conservatives across this country leave this hall with. What’s in the back of their mind [about the candidates] when they leave this hall?”
Speaking to reporters after the straw poll results were announced, Fabrizio emphasized that the results were not scientific — and reminded the press that Arizona Sen. John McCain finished fifth at CPAC in 2007.
“A year later, where was John McCain?” he asked rhetorically.
What many Republican activists here are thinking about is who else may get in the GOP race.
Former Michigan state GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis, who lost a bid for RNC chair last month, said that the straw ballot still matters because the second, third and fourth-place finishes are revealing.
“It’s just like a poll. When you’re doing a poll, you look if you oversample one group or another and then you make a calculation,” he said. “It’s very hard to calculate in a situation like this because it’s not scientific at all.”
The straw poll’s more indicative figure than candidate preference was that 43 percent of participants said they wished the GOP had a better field.
One of the candidates they’d like to see run is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Even though he has said repeatedly that he’s not running, Christie got 6 percent of the vote, that’s more than Palin, Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels, John Thune and Haley Barbour each garnered.
As telling was whenever speakers mentioned Christie’s name from the podium, he won applause.
The loudest cheers Barbour got during his speech where when he singled out his fellow GOP governor.
Speaking Saturday night, conservative provocateur Ann Coulter won loud cheers when she said: “If we don’t run Chris Christie, Romney will be the nominee, and we’ll lose.”
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who also has said he won’t run, gave one of the best-received speeches of the event, reminding attendees about their desire for more options.
“Some of the candidates from last time around are not as exciting as the governor of Texas, who seems to be a real conservative,” Rohrabacher said.
One of the Republicans who has not ruled out a bid, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, won raves from some attendees for his Friday night speech. But the straw poll balloting ended hours before he addressed the crowd, and Daniels received just 4 percent.
© 2011 Capitol News