Rand Paul Won the CPAC Straw Poll. Don’t Take That to Mean More.

The annual conservative conference has picked the Kentucky senator as the favorite. What does that mean for his future?

National Journal
Feb. 28, 2015, 12:21 p.m.

It’s a three-peat for Rand Paul, who won the Conservative Political Action Conference straw poll on Saturday.

The senator from Kentucky won 25.7 percent of the vote. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker finished in second place with 21.4 percent, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz finished third with 11.5 percent. Neurosurgeon Ben Carson won 11.4 percent of the vote, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush won 8.3 percent.

Paul, who won in 2013 and 2014, had been the favorite to win this year, especially with a libertarian-leaning audience. The CPAC poll serves as a measure of grassroots support, and Paul had it — the ballroom was packed to the rafters during his speech on Friday, with activists chanting, “President Paul.” The keys to winning the straw poll are delivering a strong performance and bringing enough supporters to stack the deck, and Paul had succeeded in doing both. “Will you stand with me? Will you fight for freedom? Will you vote for freedom?” Paul said at the end of his speech, to sustained applause.

Don’t mistake winning the CPAC straw poll as the first step toward winning the GOP’s presidential nomination. In CPAC’s 41-year history, only three poll winners on record have gone on to become Republican presidential nominees: Ronald Reagan (who won twice), George W. Bush, and Mitt Romney. The conference has official results for only 20 polls in that time, but the success rate shows that these polls are not a reliable predictor of who ends up a GOP nominee. Politicians who did capture nominations did so after triumphing in CPAC polls during election years, so let’s see if Paul continues his streak next year.

The straw poll of about 3,000 attendees was conducted throughout the three-day conference. This year’s poll was a big one, with 17 names to choose from and an option to pick none. It also had a few new features. The poll included questions on specific issues, like immigration, marijuana legalization, Common Core, and government surveillance programs, and asked attendees to name their second choice for president.

Only 27 percent of attendees who voted in the poll said they want marijuana to stay illegal, a sign of the younger crowd at the conference. Seventy-seven percent said they want President Obama’s executive actions on immigration defunded, but just 37 percent said illegal immigrants should be deported.

The CPAC crowd reaction to likely 2016ers was mixed this year. At CPAC, Walker touted his record as governor as evidence for why he’s a good fit for the White House during his speech Thursday. “If we can do it in Wisconsin, we can do it across America,” he said. The crowd loved it, erupting in chants of “run Scott run.” That sentiment rings true outside of CPAC, with Walker leading in an early Iowa poll this week. Walker seems to have moved into a coveted space for 2016: right between the establishment and the tea party.

Walker told ABC News on Friday that “if you want to win these polls, you just gotta spend a lot of money. Anybody who spends a lot of money and buys a lot of tickets and gets a lot of people here [is] gonna win.”

For Bush, CPAC marked his first appearance since beginning his moves toward an official campaign before a live audience of conservative activists — many of whom wanted to hear Bush explain himself for his more moderate positions, especially on immigration and Common Core educational standards. Bush received some early boos when conservative talk-show host Sean Hannity asked the crowd to cheer for various potential presidential candidates and a lashing from Laura Ingraham during her Friday morning speech. Bush survived an aggressive 25-minute line of questioning from Hannity later, but the CPAC crowd was not riveted.

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who lost to Paul by 2 percent in 2013, received a standing ovation, a sign that he’s likely back in the conservatives’ good graces after after a failed immigration-reform attempt in 2013 (for that, he finished seventh at CPAC in 2014).

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who hasn’t been able to break the top three in recent polls, garnered several big laughs during his question-and-answer session, but the crowd wasn’t cheering for him to run.

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