CPAC poll could generate buzz, but not necessarily a presidential nomination

On Saturday, attendees at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) will pick their favorite candidate for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. Nine of the 15 names listed in the straw poll will have just finished speaking over the course of the three-day event.

Pundits will talk about who gave the best speech and try to divine whom the buzz is settling on. But if this year’s contest is like last year’s, the winner will tell us nothing about the eventual GOP nominee, and the buzz will descend to boos.

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That’s because last year the oft-marginalized, libertarian-leaning Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) won a resounding victory in the straw poll and, as he was announced the winner, a chorus of boos rained down on him from a crowd that felt his enthusiasts had hijacked the process and come to the conference simply to vote for him.

Paul hasn’t reached double digits in national polling since his 2008 presidential bid and generally isn’t considered a credible contender in 2012, so it’s a valid question as to whether the straw poll can tell us anything meaningful at all.

The answer is yes.

The most important statistic last year will be the most important this year. In 2010, over half (53 percent) of all participants wished the GOP had a better field of potential candidates. Unfortunately for CPAC attendees, this weekend’s conference won’t offer many more choices.

Four new names have been added to the CPAC straw poll ballot, and none is considered a serious contender for the nomination.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman might be the talk of the media since various reports have him scoping out a run, but he won’t be attending the conference and hasn’t polled well, so far, losing a hypothetical primary in his home state. Further, he’s attracted little buzz from grassroots conservatives.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is the highest-profile entry, and conservatives such as the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol have urged him to run for president. But he’s strongly refused to even broach the idea, famously telling reporters that short of suicide, he didn’t know how else to express he wasn’t planning a run in 2012.

Further, Christie — like Huntsman — isn’t attending the event, so CPAC’s attendees won’t get a closer glimpse at his message and style.

Former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain is another new name on the straw poll ballot, but he’s barely registered in national primary polls — that is, when his name is listed as an option at all.

New entry Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann’s name might be the most intriguing for straw poll participants, since she shares Christie’s star power but seems to actually be thinking about running.

Last weekend, the Des Moines Register reported that Bachmann followed up on a trip to Iowa in January by talking about potential staffing there to help win the state’s presidential caucuses.

And — according to CNN — Bachmann is also headed to the early-primary state of South Carolina later this month for a lunch with a state Republican group and fundraiser for local Republicans.

But her credibility as an electable prospect is damaged by potential candidate Sarah Palin’s greater appeal to the same base of Tea Party enthusiasts. As importantly, Bachmann’s recent decision to give a response to President Obama’s State of the Union address, via a Tea Party group, highlighted her division with the GOP establishment, further boxing her into Palin’s ideological space.

The final new entry to the field is former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, who supports legalizing marijuana and said he smoked it medicinally for three years, wants the United States out of Afghanistan and Iraq “tomorrow,” and has discussed the possibility of abolishing the Transportation Security Administration.

Needless to say, Johnson probably isn’t what CPAC attendees had in mind when they pined last year for more electable options, and state-by-state and national polling show him mired near the bottom of potential candidates.

The straw poll’s one subtraction this year — Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) — suggests the field has, if anything, weakened since 2010. Pence was recruited heavily this year by both establishment and grassroots conservatives, only to opt out of the presidential sweepstakes.
 
Not only did Pence finish a respectable fifth in last year’s poll, he actually won a straw poll at a similar conservative event last fall — the Values Voter Summit.

So, with the addition of four new entrants who aren’t considered serious threats for the nomination and the subtraction of one who seemed poised to break out, CPAC attendees might be even less satisfied with the crop of potential candidates this weekend, further highlighting the conventional wisdom that 2012 boasts a weak crop of GOP candidates.

Heinze, the founder of GOP12.com, is a member of staff at The Hill.  Find his column, GOP Presidential Primary, on thehill.com

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