To the surprise of few, Texas Congressman Ron Paul beat out a slew of Republican candidates to win the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC for short) straw poll, a traditional close out event for the gathering. His 30% of the vote bested other so-called frontrunners Mitt Romney (23%), Newt Gingrich (5%), Tim Pawlenty (4%), and Sarah Palin (3 percent.) It was Paul’s second CPAC win in a row; last year he ended Mitt Romney’s three-year winning streak.
But bear in mind that the poll only counted a total of 3,742 ballots; by comparison, Wicomico County accounted for 8,902 Republican primary votes in 2008. Moreover, Paul’s Campaign for Liberty front group was a key promoter of the event, so the results weren’t completely surprising.
Straw polls can be notoriously fickle, too. Remember back in September 2007 when Duncan Hunter won a Texas straw poll? By the time Texas actually had a say in the matter, Duncan Hunter was long gone from the presidential contest. (Too bad, because he was my personal choice.) While his campaign was one of notable conservativism and attracted backing from luminaries like Gen. Chuck Yeager, WorldNetDaily‘s Joseph Farah, and columnist Ann Coulter, Hunter disappeared from the race shortly after the New Hampshire primary. (Perhaps Hunter simply ran four years too soon, but there’s no indication so far he’s looking for a repeat in 2012.)
Even the Ames Straw Poll, which is seen as a kickoff to the Presidential race because of its Iowa location, hasn’t been a good prognosticator of results. Out of five such events, only twice (Bob Dole in 1995 and George W. Bush in 1999) has the eventual GOP nominee been the winner of this bellweather event. Mitt Romney won the straw ballot in 2007 but didn’t even win the state’s caucuses five months later.
So it would appear that Ron Paul, despite running strongly in a caucus-style situation, wouldn’t have a great chance of winning the GOP nod. After all, this would be his third time around the block should he choose to run – besides the 2008 campaign, he ran as the Libertarian Party standardbearer in 1988 – and he would almost certainly be the oldest candidate in the field since he turns 76 in August. Another strike against him is that most states have winner-take-all primaries, although Republican Party rules this time around push those states to the back of the electoral line.
But there are a number of ways that Paul can have a role in the race, even if he doesn’t win or even come anywhere close to victory. Consider the impact of the TEA Party this time around.
It’s a group that wasn’t politically active in 2008, which served as the end of the era of so-called compassionate conservatism. While this new course of conservativism was designed to appeal to the big tent of moderate voters the result was an ever-expanding government, and Republicans disgusted with the excesses of the Bush years stayed home in droves on Election Day. The only excitement in the McCain campaign turned out to be the selection of Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential nominee; picking the Alaska governor may have been the only thing to save McCain from a Goldwater-like electoral slaughter by Barack Obama.
Yet despite the fact only two years have passed since that nadir, the political landscape has been irrevocably changed by the ascension of the TEA Party, with the proof being the 2010 midterm elections. There’s no need to recount here the entire rise of the TEA Party, but it’s a group where Ron Paul’s acolytes have certainly found a home. Add to that the evidence from 2008 that Paul can be a powerful and convincing fundraiser, and it shows the financial firepower and grassroots support should be there for a reasonable run at the brass ring.
This election will be a showdown between establishment Republicans who favor the predictability of a Mitt Ronmey and the TEA Party irregulars who could throw their support behind Paul initially and make or break the candidacy of whichever populist conservative eventually emerges as Ronmey’s foremost challenger for the nomination.
In time, Ron Paul could become a dealmaker, with his small but loyal following moving squarely behind another darkhorse candidate like Herman Cain, Jim DeMint, or Gary Johnson. (It’s a sure bet that Donald Trump is not on that list.)
But at this early stage, Paul and his legions can bask in the glow of a straw poll neatly set up to make him look good. We’re still nearly a year out from actual voting so every Republican with a pulse theoretically has a shot at the nomination. Most of the likely contenders are working hard behind the scenes building a campaign team while being coy about their intentions in public.
Still, in a time where conventional wisdom has evolved into a contest of who can most completely upset the apple cart in the quickest time, we can’t just dismiss the renegade Texan. The CPAC results prove Ron Paul has a role to play in this process, with the question being only what frontrunners like Romney and Palin will do to accommodate his diligent supporters.