The Conservative Political Action Conference is an annual ritual for the American right, an opportunity to network, talk policy, and throw a three-day celebration of all things conservative in the nation's capital. Appearances at the gathering have become de rigueur for high-profile Republicans, and the approaching 2012 presidential race has lent particular importance to this year's conference, which kicked off Thursday. More than a dozen of the many potential 2012 GOP presidential candidates are making appearances at CPAC 2011, and they are all doubtless eagerly awaiting the results of the CPAC straw poll. But a glance at past straw poll winners and even runners-up shows that the results are generally not predictive of presidential primary success. Below are the politicians who performed the best in the last five CPACs. [See a slide show of 10 GOP Frontrunners in 2012]
|Year||Winner (percentage)||2nd Place (percentage)|
|2010||Ron Paul (31 percent)||Mitt Romney (22 percent)|
|2009||Mitt Romney (20 percent)||Bobby Jindal (14 percent)|
|2008||Mitt Romney (35 percent)||John McCain (34 percent)|
|2007||Mitt Romney (21 percent)||Rudy Giuliani (17 percent)|
|2006||George Allen (22 percent)||John McCain (20 percent)|
The last time the poll winner has matched an eventual GOP presidential nominee, it was 2000, when George W. Bush won both the CPAC poll and the Republican nod. Indeed, while it's hard to say the poll results predict anything, they do provide some insights into candidates' strengths.
Perhaps most notable is the staying power of Mitt Romney. Romney chose not to seek re-election as Governor of Massachusetts in 2007 and instead sought the 2008 presidential nomination, and since that time, he has clearly remained at or near the top of the Republican heap. Meanwhile, Texas Rep. Ron Paul has an intensely loyal base of supporters--he bested the competition by nine percentage points last year due to his strong contingent of fans, and the raucous cheers that interrupted his CPAC speech on Friday show that he retains that support. Yet the libertarian-leaning Republican is still polling well behind frontrunners like Romney, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee for the 2012 nomination.
CPAC 2011 is expected to have record attendance, and one reason is the movement's growing youth contingent; 54 percent of the voters in last year's straw poll were between the ages of 18 and 25. However, Patrick Coyle, a vice president of Young America's Foundation, which promotes conservatism among American students and young adults, says that he doesn't think the youth presence at the convention should sway the straw poll results too much. "Honestly, I haven't seen [young people leaning] one way or another," he says. "Some really love Sarah Palin, and she really energizes a lot of people, [but] I've seen a lot of other students walking around supporting other candidates."
Some of those candidates are gunning for straw poll votes harder than others. Fliers circulated at this year's conference promoting former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, one lesser-known potential presidential hopeful. And GOProud, an organization representing gay conservatives, is pushing for Donald Trump write-in votes on the ballot. Michael Knowles, political Ddirector of the Student Initiative to Draft [Mitch] Daniels, believes that the poll can only do so much for a candidate, and that a high-profile politician like the Indiana governor stands to gain less from a win at CPAC. "I think some really minor candidates are really focused on the poll. For someone like Gov. Daniels, that's not really a concern," says Knowles. While a win among this year's over 10,000 estimated attendees may mean different things to different candidates, then, it certainly would be a welcome victory for any of them.