Rand Paul wins big in CPAC presidential poll. Can he take it to 2016?

For the second year in a row, Sen. Rand Paul won the Conservative Political Action Conference's presidential straw poll. Sen. Ted Cruz did well, too, showing the strength of anti-establishment Republicans within the GOP.

Susan Walsh/AP
Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky speaks at the Conservative Political Action Committee annual conference Friday. Senator Paul won the presidential straw poll Saturday.

Rand Paul was the big winner at this year’s gathering of conservative activists, taking 31 percent of the presidential straw poll.

The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) mock election, which totaled 2,459 votes and featured 25 names to choose from (plus the option of writing in favorites), is seen as a barometer of the conservative movement. It can also be a boost – or a disappointment – to presidential aspirants.

Trailing way behind Senator Paul of Kentucky were Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas with 11 percent of the vote, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson with 9 percent, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie with 8 percent, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Sen. Rick Santorum with 7 percent each, and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida with 6 percent.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin won just 3 percent each. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal took 2 percent each – the same as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Within those numbers, some mini-trends may prove significant.

Paul saw his portion of the vote increase from 25 percent last year, when he also won. Senator Cruz’s vote jumped from 4 percent last year (when he’d barely been sworn in as a freshman senator) to 11 percent.

That two such tea party favorites should top the list of straw poll contenders is not surprising – particularly given the libertarian tinge Paul brings to the GOP’s internal debate, plus the young following he brings to CPAC (as did his father, retired US Rep. Ron Paul, who won the vote in 2010 and 2011).

Both Paul and Cruz represent a sharp challenge – and a rebuke – to the establishment GOP, especially in Congress.

In separate poll questions, 51 percent of CPAC attendees said they disapprove of the job Republicans are doing in Congress. And in contrast with the kind of rhetorical saber-rattling heard these days from many Republicans about the situation in Ukraine, 52 percent at CPAC said it’s time for US allies to stand up for their own defense and not rely on the United States.

At the same time, Paul’s activism on National Security Agency spying rings especially true for many movement conservatives. His book, “Government Bullies: How Everyday Americans are Being Harassed, Abused, and Imprisoned by the Feds,” was a bestseller at CPAC.

“He is the only true liberty candidate who focuses on civil liberties more than anybody else,” Al Seltzinger, age 36, told the Washington Times, the newspaper that sponsors CPAC. “I think the way the nation is going today with the government and the president going against the Constitution that we need someone who holds strict to the Constitution and whose voting record is pretty solid when it comes to the Constitution.”

As a gathering of conservatives, CPAC is not necessarily representative of the Republican Party. Attendees are generally younger, many of them campus activists, and many of them Paul enthusiasts – Rand or his father, Ron.

This year, 46 percent of those voting in the straw poll were ages 18 to 25, and 42 percent were students. That’s likely why a plurality of 41 percent said marijuana should be legal for recreational as well as medicinal use.

Nor is the presidential straw poll vote a very accurate predictor of the GOP’s nominee or of presidential election results.

In the 19 straw polls taken since 1976, just two poll winners have gone on to become president: Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

Among the other straw poll winners: Jack Kemp (three times), Phil Gramm, Steve Forbes, Gary Bauer, and George Allen. (If it takes you a minute to remember who they are, that’s okay.) Mitt Romney – who twice tried and failed to win the presidency – holds the record as a four-time poll winner (once more than conservative icon Reagan). 

The biggest loser this year may be Senator Rubio of Florida

“Though he finished in second place last year with 23 percent, this year his support cratered and he finished in seventh place with just 6 percent support,” the Hill newspaper reports. “The Florida senator saw his support among the conservative base erode following his support for comprehensive immigration reform.”

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