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Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Marriott Wardman Park February 11, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Getty Images)

Ron Paul And Presidential Straw Polls

Feb 15, 2011

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Political journalists, by and large, are anywhere between hungry and starving for the 2012 presidential campaign to officially get started. After all, there are "only" 350 some-odd days until the Iowa caucuses, and there are no announced candidates!!! (Oops, sorry, Herman Cain.)

Which is completely unacceptable.

That's one of the reasons they couldn't wait for the "straw poll" at last week's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) to get underway. Finally, we have something to talk about! It's big!! It's important!! It's monumental!!!

That is, until Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) won, for the second year in a row. As we probably knew he would. Then these same folks completely dismissed the results as meaningless. As we probably knew they would. They point out that Paul often wins these things, which is true, but never does well when it counts, in the primaries and caucuses, which is also true, so why should we pay attention to them?

(Official results, not that you asked: Paul 30%, Mitt Romney 23%, former N.M. Gov. Gary Johnson 6%, N.J. Gov. Chris Christie 6%, Newt Gingrich 5%, Michele Bachmann 4%, Tim Pawlenty 4%, Mitch Daniels 4%, Sarah Palin 3%, Mike Huckabee 2%, Cain 2%, Rick Santorum 2%, John Thune 2%, former Utah Gov./ex-China ambassador Jon Huntsman 1%, and Haley Barbour 1%.)

Actually, it's hard to make the case that straw polls are indicative of anything, whether or not Paul wins them. Four years ago, at the 2007 CPAC, the winner was Mitt Romney, followed by former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani and then-Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas. OK, Romney may have been a credible contender for the 2008 GOP nomination. But Giuliani and Brownback? Most definitely not. And the nomination went to John McCain, who didn't even attend CPAC and finished fifth. (Fun fact: Romney also won the 2008 CPAC straw poll, after he dropped out of the presidential race.)

(On the other hand, let's go back to the Iowa straw poll in 1999, won by George W. Bush. Lamar Alexander finished 6th and Dan Quayle finished 8th, and both dropped out of the race immediately afterward. So maybe while winning the straw polls is not considered that significant, an awful showing may have consequences.)

But what is it about Ron Paul and his success at straw polls?

Part of it is not a surprise. His supporters are fervent, to say the least. They are committed. And they raise a ton of money. A few years ago, when I wrote in this column that neither Paul nor Ohio's Dennis Kucinich (D) had a chance of winning their respective parties' nominations, I received a ton of emails telling me how deluded I was or how I was part of the cabal that was trying to bring down the country. That response was, shall we say, not very pleasant. (Though, if memory serves, neither won the nomination that year.)

Another reason given for Paul's strong showings is that his supporters understand the Internet and they know how to organize. In addition to two CPAC wins in a row, he won straw polls in close to a dozen states in 2007-08, including one in Arizona (home of McCain), with like 80 percent of the vote. (Paul's total in the actual Arizona primary, however, told a different story: four percent of the vote.) I put together a "March Madness" pool in a 2009 blog post and Paul won it easily, over Sen. Jim DeMint. (This headline from the Daily Paul website at the time: "NPR Poll — Ron Paul vs. Mitt Romney. You know what to do!")

Clearly, they know what to do.

But let's give Paul some credit as well; it's more than simple organizing and fervor. Paul stood out during the 2007-08 GOP debates, for better or worse, for his unorthodox (from Republican standards) view on the war in Iraq, and his concerns about bailouts and the Federal Reserve (which have since become more part of party orthodoxy). He clearly did not read from the same script as his fellow Republican candidates.

In fact, when most of them were tip-toeing around the problems of the Bush years, Paul took a stand. He lashed out at the Bush administration for the decision to go to war (remember his back-and-forth with Giuliani?), as well as reiterating his argument against the Patriot Act and the administration's use (or misuse) of habeas corpus. He also had some theories about the cause of 9/11 that were not, shall we say, especially popular.

Of course, being contrary has never been new to Paul; he was one of only six House Republicans to vote against the decision to go to war in the first place, and in 1988, in between stints as a member of Congress, he was the Libertarian Party nominee for president.

So perhaps his victory at CPAC was a foregone conclusion. Kasie Hunt wrote in Politico, in advance of Saturday's straw poll, that Paul was a "pretty safe bet" to win it:

Why? The Texas congressman and 2008 presidential candidate almost always does. While his ardent supporters aren't numerous enough to win him actual primaries or caucuses, they've mastered the unofficial straw poll format and they've decided those informal polls send an important message. Case in point: The Paul forces are already organizing for June's Republican Leadership Conference and Ronald Reagan Centennial Celebration straw poll and Iowa's traditional Ames straw poll in August. ...

Of course, the Paul organization lends a helping hand. This year, the congressman's official Campaign for Liberty reserved blocks of tickets for CPAC and urged supporters to come out. They've been at in force at CPAC since Thursday, when they began handing out "Campaign for Liberty" lapel stickers, pitching them as "giving away free liberty."

But the Campaign for Liberty didn't pay for supporters' CPAC tickets. Their top-down efforts have been supplemented — or even surpassed — by a hard-core group of young fans who use the Internet to organize, encourage each other, and lay the groundwork for top finishes in the various straw poll events. The Paul supporters are almost obsessive about the polls, and they have one goal: to get the media's attention in an attempt to prove Paul is a viable candidate for president.

I'm tempted to go back to my old question: Why isn't his straw-poll successes emulated at the primaries and caucuses?

But maybe that's no longer the right question to ask. Politics has changed since 2008, and so has the Republican Party. It is practically unfathomable to think that McCain — with his history of battling conservatives in the party — could win the nomination in this day and age. The fact that Orrin Hatch and Dick Lugar may have to fight for their lives in next year's GOP Senate primaries is just one indication how the party has changed, and changed drastically. Heck, look at the 2010 Senate primary in Kentucky. Mitch McConnell, the Senate GOP leader, is the unrivaled party honcho in the Bluegrass State. And yet his choice for the Senate, Trey Grayson, got swamped in the primary by Tea Party favorite Rand (son of Ron) Paul. Perhaps the Ron-Paul-can't-win mantra is no longer operable.

I'm not suggesting that Paul can win the nomination. I still say he can't. He is, in addition to everything else, 75 years old. And for all we know, he may not run again (although I suspect he will.)

But, perhaps most important, maybe getting votes is not as crucial to him as shaping the conversation. And Paul in the race will certainly give a real voice to Tea Party concerns, not the lip service that some of the more established would-be candidates have been accused of doing. Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform and an influential conservative, said this to National Review:

"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.

Last year, after Paul won the CPAC straw poll, I again wondered what, if anything, it meant. I decided not much. But I ended with this:

While I may dismiss his chances, I don't dismiss the passion and energy of his supporters. And I suspect that, in the wake of Obama's election and the rise of the Tea Party movement, that passion and energy will be in even more evidence in the time leading up to 2012.

One thing I feel pretty confident about: for the Republicans, 2012 is going to look nothing like 2008.

From the Archives: "Ron Paul Wins Another Poll, But What Does It Mean?" (Political Junkie, Feb. 25, 2010); "Ron Paul Tops Jim DeMint, Wins March Madness Pool," (April 7, 2009); Paul is special guest on TOTN Junkie segment (May 14, 2008); "Ron Paul, George and Ringo" (July 26, 2007)

Who's Got the Buttons? A mini-assortment of political buttons found at CPAC, courtesy NPR producer Evie Stone:

Talk of the Nation: Last Wednesday's Political Junkie segment focused on the direction of the Democratic Party, with special guest Howard Dean, the former DNC chair and Vermont governor. You can hear the segment here:

And, I concede, it was a pretty easy trivia question last week:

With all the talk of several Republican women possibly running for president — Sarah Palin giving the big speech at the Reagan Center, Michelle Bachmann going to Iowa, etc. — the question is: Which Republican woman received the most primary votes in history? (Answer below.)

Podcast. Last week's episode of our "It's All Politics" podcast focused on CPAC, Sen. Jim Webb's decision to retire and Jane Harman's departure from the House. It was produced by Gisele Grayson and edited by Cathy Shaw. And it's Ron Elving and I yakking away, Ron from D.C. and me from Austin, Texas, courtesy member station KUT:

ScuttleButton Puzzle Answer. ScuttleButton, as many loyal Americans know, is my weekly puzzle in which I put forward a vertical display of buttons and your job is to take one word (or concept) per button, add 'em up, and, hopefully, you will arrive at a famous name or expression. Here are the buttons used in the previous Friday's ScuttleButton contest:

Run Rocky Run — Some Republicans urged New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller run president in 1968, as if he needed urging.

Another Old White Guy for Obama — One of many voters' groups who supported the Democratic presidential nominee in 2008.

Re-elect Governor Ray — Bob Ray, an Iowa Republican, was first elected in 1968 and re-elected in '70, '72, '74 and '78.

Gun Safety Day 9-9-99 — Button distributed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

And so, when you add Run + Old + Ray + Gun, you might end up with ...

Ronald Reagan. The nation's 40th president, who would have turned 100 on Feb. 6. A shame that no one commemorated the event.

Anyway, this week's winner, chosen completely at random, is (drum roll) ... Joe Selby of Nashua, N.H.

Wanna be on my weekly mailing list? Sign up at politicaljunkie@npr.org.

Wanna follow my rantings on Twitter? Go to http://twitter.com/kenrudin.

Later this week: Another podcast. And ScuttleButton!

Trivia answer: Margaret Chase Smith, 1964. She received a total of 224,970 votes in the primaries.

This Day In Political History: Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a Maryland Democrat, resigns from Congress to head up the NAACP. He replaces Benjamin Chavis, who had been fired after reports that he used the group's money to pay off someone who was planning to file a sexual-discrimination suit against him (Feb. 15, 1996).

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org

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