Updated at 12:54 p.m. on February 13.
Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, won his second consecutive CPAC presidential straw poll on Saturday, much to the chagrin of many conservatives attending the annual conference, whose boos clashed with the cheers of Paul's loyal legion of supporters.
Paul won with 30 percent of the vote, besting former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney with 23 percent. The results were remarkably similar to 2010, when Paul topped Romney, 31 percent to 22 percent.
Another libertarian-minded potential presidential candidate, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, finished a distant third, winning 6 percent -- tied with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who did not attend the conference. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich took 5 percent. Former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., only won 2 percent, after aggressively campaigning in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who declined an invitation to the conference, took 3 percent. And Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour tied for last place (with Obama's ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman), winning just 1 percent of the vote.
The straw poll -- while not scientific -- was conducted by Republican pollster Fabrizio, McLaughlin and Associates; 3,742 conference attendees were surveyed, a spike from last year's turnout.
The result was hardly unexpected, as Paul's contingent of supporters vastly outnumbered those of any other presidential hopeful. Paul's overwhelming turnout can be attributed partially to the congressman's Campaign for Liberty group, which purchased hundreds -- if not thousands -- of tickets for his devotees, whom Paul had encouraged to barnstorm the event.
"It will tell the country a whole lot about the enthusiasm the young people have for liberty," Paul said in a video inviting his fans to attend CPAC, which was posted online in late December.
Indeed, some of the other candidates and their staffers quietly complained that Paul had once again hijacked the process by encouraging his supporters to attend the event en masse, giving him an undeniable advantage when the ballots were cast.
"When you stack the deck, you've got a good chance to win," businessman Herman Cain told National Journal on Friday, acknowledging with some frustration that Paul would be the likely victor. Cain finished with 2 percent of the vote.
Many of the conservative activists in attendance echoed Cain’s complaint, arguing that Paul’s thinly veiled campaign to win the straw poll by turning out thousands of his dedicated supporters defeats the purpose of such a contest: to gauge which candidates are supported by the unaffiliated GOP voters in attendance.
Nate Gunderson, a 34-year old Utah native who supports Romney, said Paul's tactics could diminish the significance of the annual contest. "If this happens year after year after year, people will stop caring about the straw poll," said Gunderson, who said he was "pretty upset" and booed when Paul won last year but "expected" the Texan to repeat this year.
“Is it hijacked? Yeah, but it’s perfectly legal," said Gunderson, who owns a souvenir shop and writes a pro-Romney blog. "If other candidates want to do that, they can. But Paul just represents one smaller facet of the conservative movement that’s organized really well and brought a lot of young students from all over the place to vote for him.”
Despite the media hype surrounding the straw poll, it has rarely served in recent years as an accurate indicator of overall GOP sentiment, or even conservative presidential preferences. Romney perhaps best exemplifies the straw poll's reputation of being little more than a political beauty contest; he won the contest three consecutive years -- 2007, 2008, and 2009 -- but failed to secure the GOP nomination in 2008.
The most recent example of a CPAC straw-poll winner carrying his success into a presidential contest was George W. Bush, who won in 2000 -- several months before securing the GOP nomination.
Paul's victory does little to change the conventional wisdom that he remains unlikely to compete for -- much less secure -- the GOP nomination. But it does highlight the increasing disconnect between grassroots activists and establishment Republicans, many of whom view Paul's tactics with disapproval.
But Paul supporters disagree with the assertion that they are somehow damaging the straw-poll tradition. "The same thing happened with a lot of Romney voters a few years ago, and the same thing happened last year for other candidates," said 20-year old Drew Owens, an international economics major at Auburn University who's attending his first CPAC with 10 other Paul enthusiasts.
Owens purchased a steeply discounted ticket for $11 -- far less than the $175 general price for weekend admission -- which he said was courtesy of Paul's Campaign for Liberty. “I see their point of view, because we have a lot of students who were given discounted tickets. But we're not the first people to do this. They bus in Romney supporters, but the difference with us is that our enthusiasm persists.”
Tom Medhurst, a 61-year-old Ohio native making his first visit to CPAC, said he doesn't understand what all the fuss is about. Medhurst, who was unable to participate in the straw-poll vote but said he would have voted for Barbour, doesn’t think Paul's tactics diminish the importance of the straw poll.
“Am I bothered by the fact that Ron Paul stacked the deck? Not at all,” said Medhurst. “That’s politics, isn’t it?”
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