In the Southern Republican Leadership Conference’s 2012 presidential straw poll, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney beat Texas Rep. Ron Paul by just one vote for the win. Paul spoke and Romney didn’t, but supporters of both candidates worked hard for a straw poll victory. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich trailed Romney and Paul by about six percentage points, taking 18 percent of the vote apiece. Nobody else got more than four percent of the vote. Following on the CPAC straw poll, which Paul won while Romney came in second, a few generalizations can be made.
Straw polls are unscientific and no predictor of how a given candidate will do in a real election. But they are good tests of grassroots enthusiasm and organizational strength. Romney has the best campaign organization in place of any of the Republicans taking a serious look at the 2012 presidential election. And while Paul has always had enthusiastic grassroots supporters, his organization is getting better too: Twice at significant gatherings of Republican activists, they have been able to go head-to-head with Romney and come out looking good. These kinds of events are harder to win than Internet polls.
That said, at both of these gatherings there was still a clear disconnect between many of Paul’s supporters and the rest of the Republican Party. That might not bode well for Paul’s ability to improve on his showings in the primaries and caucuses, which would require him to move a lot more voters than it takes to win a straw poll. And Romney’s inability to come away with overwhelming victories in straw polls against candidates with little organizational strength or grassroots support suggests his frontrunner status is tenuous.
But these straw polls say even more about the other candidates pondering a run: at this extremely early stage of the race, many Republican aspirants — some of them beloved by the Beltway right — barely register among even fairly engaged members of the GOP rank and file. Others, like Palin, don’t yet have the organizational heft to match their grassroots popularity. It might be an even more wide-open race than 2008.