Don't discount significance of Paul CPAC win

There's a lot of hard work to do in the next few years, but it doesn't hurt to start the race with the inside track. Photo: Rand Paul CPAC 2013 / @JACQUIE KUBIN

WASHINGTON, March 17, 2013 ― Rand Paul won the Washington Times CPAC presidential straw poll with 25 percent of the vote, edging out Marco Rubio’s 23 percent. It’s a narrow margin of victory and maybe not that significant three and a half years out from the 2016 election. Certainly not as impressive seeming as Mitt Romney’s 38 percent win in 2012 or even Ron Paul’s 30 percent win in 2011.

Yet the story is a little different if you have some context on the environment in which the vote took place. If you follow CPAC you may be aware that since Al Cardenas took over the American Conservative union three years ago there has been a concerted effort to discourage the participation of more libertarian leaning groups in CPAC. First they refused to register any gay or socially moderate groups. Libertarian groups held a boycott in response. Then they settled on a policy of neglect, leaving libertarian events out of the program, forgetting to return their emails or phonecalls and generally turning a cold shoulder. A libertarian future for the GOP is not what the establishment apparatchiks at the ACU want to see.

So libertarian participation in CPAC is down, but far more significant is the basic nature of a straw poll. It’s a beauty contest which goes to whoever has the most hardcore supporters show up to vote for them. How or why those voters got there isn’t taken into consideration. If they are driven by a fanatical love for the candidate or straight-out paid to be there, then those votes still count just the same as any other. 

A poll like this is a better measure of intensity of support than of breadth of support, so Ron Paul has done well in the past because his supporters would travel long distances and pay high admission prices just for the honor of voting for their favorite politician. The same was true for Rick Santorum with his high-intensity but limited following. 

In fact, if you just hired a couple of thousand people to vote for you and paid their admission you could buy a win in the straw poll, and in years which are closer to a presidential election that’s almost exactly what the top candidates do. The press exposure is worth the expense. In 2011 and 2012 Ron Paul supporting groups raised money to pay the admission and in some cases the travel expenses of loyal fans. In 2012, to make sure that Paul didn’t run away with the poll, Romney supporters were bussed in from far away, had their admission paid by the campaign and got a chance to vote. In fact, some of them didn’t even show up until the last minute, voting and not participating in the rest of the conference at all. Romney outbid Paul in 2012 and bought the straw poll win.

Starting last year CPAC management has attempted to “normalize” the results of the straw poll by including votes made online, not just at the convention, but even with this year’s relatively low turnout it appears to be the voters on the spot at CPAC who make the difference.

This year we’re too far out from the actual election for anyone to have major campaign funds to put into buying a win, so theoretically we probably got as honest a result as you can get out of a straw poll. This makes it more significant that Rand Paul won than it would be otherwise. He won despite suppressed liberty movement participation. He won without subsidizing supporters. He won in an environment which was very supportive of the establishment and their darlings like Marco Rubio.

All of this makes his win significant. On a level playing field or even with a slight disadvantage, he can beat the best the party insiders have to throw at him. He may have had a little filibuster bump, but his record suggests that his pattern of making dramatic gestures isn’t going to go away. Paul isn’t a shoe-in for the Republican nomination yet. There’s a lot of hard work to do in the next few years, but it doesn’t hurt to start the race with the inside track.

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Dave Nalle

Dave Nalle has been writing political analysis since the 1980s for newspapers, magazines and now online journals. He is currently Execitive Director of the Center for Foreign Policy Priorities, is on the board of the Coalition to Reduce Spending, and served four years as National Chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus.

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