Why Ron Paul keeps winning straw polls

at 11:43 AM ET, 06/20/2011


U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) speaks during the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana June 17, 2011. REUTERS/Sean Gardner
Texas Republican Rep. Ron Paul may be the single best straw poll candidate in the 2012 field.

Paul easily won the straw vote at this weekend’s Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans, outdistancing the likes of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann.

That victory comes on the heels of Paul’s straw poll win at the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this year — a straw vote he also won at the 2010 CPAC gathering.

And yet, for all of Paul’s straw poll success, he remains a marginal figure — at best — in the 2012 field. What gives?

The simple — yet largely unspoken — fact is that the vast majority of straw polls don’t matter as history suggests they have little correlation with the dynamics of actual primaries and caucuses.

The most important reason for that disparity is that the number of votes cast in straw polls is minuscule.

Paul won the RLC straw poll on Saturday with 612 votes out of 1,542 cast; at CPAC this year, a total of 3,742 votes were cast.

To put that in perspective, Paul finished fifth in the 2008 Iowa Republican caucuses — behind Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) who didn’t even compete in the state — with 11,817 votes. There were nearly 119,000 total votes cast.

The tiny voter universe of straw polls plays into Paul’s greatest strength — the deep and abiding loyalty that a relatively narrow group of supporters have for him.

(For more on that particular phenomenon, make sure to check out our piece on what Paul and “Friday Night Lights” have in common.)

The problem for Paul is that he has struggled mightily to scale that support upwards as the number of people voting in a given contest has grown.

Remember that Paul did not win a single primary or caucus in the 2008 presidential race despite raising tens of millions of dollars via the Internet and emerging as one of the stories of the campaign.

And, even at the 2007 Ames Straw Poll — perhaps the only straw event worth paying attention to — Paul couldn’t turn the energy of the few into the votes of the many.

To walk around Ames that day — as we did — one would have thought Paul was going to pull a titanic political upset. His supporters seemed to be everywhere, parading around the event site chanting his name and dwarfing the other more establishment candidates when it came to the excitement factor.

And yet, when the results were announced, Paul finished fifth with 1,305 votes — behind even then Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, a decided longshot in the race.

What all of that suggests is that Paul tends to win these minor straw poll skirmishes for two basic reasons:

1. His ardent base of supporters is large enough to have a determinative impact on events where so few votes are cast.

2. None of the other, more establishment candidates care enough to make a concerted effort to win. (When they do, they tend to win; Romney won the CPAC straw poll in 2007, 2008 and 2009.)

With Romney already announcing that he will not participate in any straw polls this year — including Ames — the door is open for Paul to continue his winning streak.

But, don’t mistake winning straw polls for winning elections. History suggests they are two totally different animals.

 
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