Obviously, it would be easy to read too much into Ron Paul winning the CPAC straw poll this year. Paul’s supporters were the ones trying hardest to win. Paul has often done well in unscientific polls and it is easier for his enthuasistic grassroots supporters to deliver a low-turnout straw poll victory than a primary or caucus. Paul got a decent number of votes in the 2008 primaries and turned out big crowds, but his supporters were spread too thinly across the country for him to win any states. That would have to change for him to make a credible run for the Republican presidential nomination, and it isn’t clear that it has.
But it would also be a mistake to dismiss Paul’s strong showing at CPAC entirely. Ron Paul has clearly struck a nerve among a large portion of the young activist right. His supporters are getting savvier and more professional. And Paul’s strain of conservatism does appear to be growing in appeal — slightly on foreign policy, substantially on domestic affairs. Paul has built a movement that has outlasted his 2008 run and may outlast his own political career.
The CPAC straw poll results also means something for the other candidates in the race. Straw polls aren’t scientific surveys, but they are effective ways to gauge grassroots enthusiasm and organziational strength. At CPAC, only Paul and Mitt Romney showed any signs of life on that front. It also goes to show that being held in high regard by the official movement — as Mike Pence, Mitch Daniels, and Haley Barbour clearly are — doesn’t automatically translate into national conservative popularity. It is early and the other candidates still have plenty of time. But they’ve got their work cut out for them.
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