Whenever a candidate wins a straw poll of any significance, supporters of the losing candidates immediately cry foul: “That candidate bused his supporters in! He paid for their tickets! Isn’t that like buying votes?” We heard this when Mitt Romney won three CPAC straw polls in a row and also after Ron Paul won the last two.
But that’s exactly the point of a straw poll, which isn’t a scientific survey. A campaign organization’s ability to identify supporters and get them to the poll, plus the supporters’ willingness to do all this on their own, are the exact things a live straw poll measures. That’s a big part of what wins real elections: your supporters’ motivation combined with your campaign’s ability to figure out who your supporters are and make sure they turn out to vote.
Now, you can’t extrapolate too much from straw polls because of scale: you can win even some of the bigger straw polls by bringing in 1,000 supporters but you can’t win the Iowa caucuses that way. The more people vote, the less intensity can make up for differences in popular support. Ron Paul also has a comparative advantage at CPAC in that his support skews younger, so more of his backers can be brought in cost-effectively at the student rate.
You can, however, extrapolate this: most of the other potential candidates not named Paul or Romney, even popular ones who have raised decent amounts of money, don’t yet have the organizations or self-organizing grassroots to compete. You could say that some of the campaigns have simply decided against spending their resources this way — I have no doubt that if Sarah Palin descended unto CPAC, she would do very well — but I don’t buy that for most of the candidates. The buzz from a strong showing even in the Paul-won straw polls is decent enough, and relatively cheap enough to get, that most of the campaigns would try to compete if they thought they could get a good enough result. So the straw polls don’t tell you a whole lot, but neither do they tell you nothing.
UPDATE: I suppose this is as good a time as any to promote our own straw poll, which no campaign can bus their supporters to.
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