What CPAC’s Straw Poll Tells Us, And What It Doesn’t

Much debate has swirled around the relevance of Conservative Political Action Conference’s (CPAC) straw poll results since their release last week. With over 3000 votes cast, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul won with approximately 25.7 percent of the vote, followed closely by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker at 21.4 percent, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and neurosurgeon Ben Carson in a virtual tie at 11.5 and 11.4 percent respectively. Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, captured about 8.3 percent of the vote, and the rest received less than 5 percent each.

Many were quick to dismiss the straw poll as irrelevant – a mere blip on the radar of national politics, particularly in relation to the impending Republican presidential primary. After all, Sen. Paul is not the frontrunner in national opinion polls (at present, Gov. Walker is), and the demographic disparities between CPAC and Republican voters are generally too vast to consider the straw poll representative of Republican attitudes. Others merely declare that CPAC has become a misnomer, decidedly more “libertarian” than “conservative.”

While there is some merit to the skepticism surrounding ultimate importance of the straw poll results, that does not mean that there is nothing of value to gain from a deeper analysis of the results. Just as throwing the baby out with the bathwater would be poor form for a midwife, so too is it poor political analysis to discard the meaningful lessons of CPAC along with the assertions of Rand Paul’s unstoppable ascendance to the Oval Office. Instead, CPAC’s importance in national politics deserves a thorough analysis, both in terms of what we can glean from its straw poll results, and what we cannot. Let us begin with the latter.

What CPAC Does Not Tell Us

First, the straw poll is not indicative of who will win the Republican presidential nomination. Straw polls have an inherent selection bias that random samples do not, and that bias is easily subject to manipulation. Mitt Romney, for example, bused in young supporters to ensure his victory in 2012 (New York Times: “The Romney campaign was working aggressively behind the scenes for a strong showing, including busing students from colleges along the Eastern Seaboard to show their support.”). Moreover, there are significant demographic irregularities among CPAC attendees, who are often considerably younger and less socially conservative than the average Republican voter.

Additionally, no one who has won the straw poll a year before an open presidential primary achieved victory in the following year, though Jack Kemp, Gary Bauer, Mitt Romney (in 2007), and Ron Paul have tried. Multiple wins do not guarantee the nomination either. Romney won the straw poll in both 2007 and 2008, yet lost the primary to John McCain. Romney had to win twice more – once with the aid of busing – before winning the nomination. Ron Paul won in 2010 and 2011, but placed third in the 2012 primary. Jack Kemp won the straw poll three times, but only attained the nomination for vice president in 1996. Statistically, multiple wins have led to an eventual spot on the electoral ticket for everyone except Ron Paul, but that is certainly no guarantee of future trends.

A necessary corollary of the above points is that losing or not participating in the straw poll does not, on its face, preclude one from becoming the eventual nominee. After all, Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush, and John McCain attained the GOP’s nomination without ever receiving CPAC’s blessing. (Pres. Gerald Ford technically did the same in 1976, surviving Reagan’s 1976 primary challenge, but a challenge of that scale is so anomalous that it falls outside the scope of the present analysis.) While the winner of the straw poll in an open election year has won the nomination three out of the four times (Reagan in 1980, George W. Bush in 2000, and Romney in 2012), there are far too few data points to establish any trend. CPAC is simply neither the maker nor the breaker of GOP presidential hopefuls.

Besides, the primaries are too far in the future for any poll – straw or otherwise – to accurately predict the winner of the presidential primaries. There was a time, after all, in which a little known businessman from Georgia by the name of Herman Cain rocketed to the lead in 2011 primary polls, shortly before withdrawing due to allegations of sexual harassment. Such events happen. Strong candidates appear from the blue and, for one reason or another, become immensely popular. And as they appear, so too do they disappear, leaving behind a vacuum for other candidates to fill. One can expect this to happen at least a few times before a single vote is cast, and the current candidates will fluctuate from first place to last and back again. Such is the nature of politics.

Lastly, CPAC does not represent current Republican policy positions. Reason noted a sharp generational divide along issues like gay marriage and recreational drug use. Moreover, Rand Paul’s more cautious and reserved approach towards foreign policy and executive military power stands in stark contrast with the more aggressive positions of his opponents and the Republican Party as a whole. However, this could just mean that Republican candidates whose foreign policy views align more with the War on Terror approach (as practiced up to now) see their support divided, leaving Paul to collect the remainder. Even so, that still places Paul outside the mainstream of Republican thought on foreign policy, as he is on several other issues.

What CPAC Does Tell Us

Paul is a contender. While CPAC is largely comprised of different demographics than those of the larger Republican Party, those demographics are nevertheless part of the Republican electorate, and not an insignificant part. Remember, Rand Paul’s father Ron Paul won the CPAC straw poll twice, and finished third in the 2012 primary as a septuagenarian – a distant third, but third nonetheless. Whether Rand Paul or anyone else will win in 2016 is anyone’s guess, but it would be foolhardy to scoff at the very real possibility of an impressive showing among Paul’s supporters in the months leading up to the eventual nomination.

Further, Walker is definitely a contender. He too seems to be a longshot, and FiveThirtyEight notes that Walker’s current position in the polls – particularly in Iowa – appears to simply be the result of a sharply divided Republican electorate, leaving these early polls with even less predictive value than they normally possess. Still, Walker could position himself as a foil to the establishment Bush and potentially succeed in doing so. Whatever the ebb and flow of the polls in the coming months, Walker will, at least for the foreseeable future, continue to be a formidable force to be reckoned with.

Alternatively, there are several candidates who have a lot of ground to recover if they hope to have a shot at the Republican nomination. In particular, Rick Santorum – whose distinctly religious brand of Republican politics won him second place in the 2012 primary – finished sixth behind Bush, and is currently polling poorly nationally. This is partly due to the fact that Mike Huckabee has appropriated many of the older, southern, and more religious Republicans upon whom Santorum relied in 2012, but whatever the reasons, Santorum is currently struggling to establish his position on the 2016 stage. However, Marco Rubio – who many speculated would be a strong candidate – is currently doing only slightly better nationally, and finished behind Santorum in the straw poll. Rubio will need to shake up the field beyond his “family, faith, and flag” mantra at the 2012 Republican National Convention. However, both he and Santorum have plenty of time to reverse current trends, and may yet jump in the polls, even before the Iowa Straw Poll in the summer.

But beyond all the 2016 predictions, there is a far more important trend that CPAC represents and that older Republicans should note: the Republican Party is changing. It is perfectly accurate to say the demographic differences between CPAC attendees and Republican voters, especially in relation to age, are sufficient to preclude CPAC from being considered representative of the GOP as it is now. As it is now, though, is not nearly as important in the long term as what it will be. And what it will be is a drastically different party, one more open on social issues, cautious on foreign policy, concerned about privacy, and less trusting of intrusive government policies – all selling points for Paul.

One must be careful, however, not to overstate these trends. CPAC attendees are not the only faction of young people on the American right. College Republicans (and like-minded organizations), like the Establishment idols upon whom they model themselves, are often more resistant to change, and too often consist of – as I have previously noted – “smarmy sycophants trying to rub elbows with… Washington.” At the time of this writing, their ranks consist less of individuals pushing for any specific policies or principles than of eager climbers seeking handshakes and photo ops with candidates for office. In listening to them, one encounters much more discussion about party branding and imaging and much less about substantive beliefs. Needless to say, in the interest of their priorities they are, by and large, much more likely to support tried-and-true Establishment candidates and safe bets. So much for the untamed idealism of youth.

And yet, even an organization like the College Republicans is not entirely immune from the influences of individualist perspectives, particularly on “social” issues. I recall a three-way debate as an undergraduate in which a Young Democrat, a College Republican, and I were asked for our stances on the ability of homosexual couples to adopt children.  There was no disagreement between the participants, and the College Republican agreed that there was no reason to deny homosexual couples the ability to adopt a child, nor to deny the child a loving home – a position that would undoubtedly turn the stomachs of “average Republican voters.” Nevertheless, it was a position that he and his College Republican colleagues took.

The inevitable and oft forgotten nature of young voters is that they eventually become old voters, and old voters eventually pass on. To say that young voters’ positions are “irrelevant” attempts to prove too much. They may be, at the time of this writing, unrepresentative of an entire party or of the voting public as a whole, but they are never irrelevant, provided that time continues to march forward and that the torch of political power gets passed from one generation to the next. While the winner of a straw poll comprised largely of young voters may be a longshot today (though not as long as many may think), imagine the same result some five election cycles down the road, and the highly unlikely becomes the nearly unstoppable – whether for candidates or for policies.

The interim, however, is uncertain, and the political course of the next few years will not turn on the outcome of a straw poll. It will turn on the ideas motivating those who attend straw polls, on who is adopting and promoting those ideas, and on who dares to ignore the voice of a new generation of Republicans just as it clears its throat.


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