Can Rand Paul's CPAC straw poll win streak be stopped?

Greg Nash

Rand PaulRand PaulTrump, Clinton boost Snapchat spending Clinton enjoying edge over Trump in Silicon Valley Trump gets little backing from Silicon Valley MORE’s likely White House foes are looking to end his Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) straw poll hot streak.

The Kentucky senator is still the frontrunner to win the annual measure of grassroots support after claiming victory for the past two years.

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But how deep other potential rivals — most notably Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — cut into his support will show who is on the rise in the 2016 GOP field.

“Every year serious candidates come to CPAC and organize and get people to come here for the specific purpose of voting for them in the straw poll,” said Citizens United President David Bossie. “Does it at the end of the day really mean anything that you can have the money and an organization to bus people in? Probably, because that means you have money and an organization. It's important.”

The establishment-minded Bush bused in hundreds of supporters to show strength in the convention space and at the straw poll ballot box, while rising star Walker had plenty of vocal backers in the building as well.

Like his father, former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) before him, the younger Paul has dominated the younger, libertarian-leaning event in recent years. This year was no different, and his allies made a visible push to keep his hot streak alive at an annual rite of passage for GOP candidates.

The poll itself has long drawn criticism that it’s just a test of who is the conservative flavor of the week or who’s willing to spend money to bus in supporters, and a list of previous winners suggests that holds some truth. For every Mitt Romney, Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush who won the straw poll there’s a Gary Bauer, Rudy Giuliani, George Allen, Steve Forbes and Phil Gramm who flamed out badly or never ran.

“It’s about stacking the deck,” former Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) said, rolling his eyes at the prospect of another Paul victory.

That mix of establishment favorites who paid to pack the house to in and conservative firebrands who caught the imaginations of the crowd is evidence there are different paths to victory.

Bossie predicted Paul would win once again — but said strong showings by other likely White House contenders could be a good sign for their long-term chances.

“You don't have to win the straw poll. You want to be seen as serious,” he said. “You're going to see guys like Scott Walker who didn't have an organization coming here because he wasn't really planning on coming here in a big way. This is new for him. I'm very interested in seeing where Scott Walker is at the end of the day. Where Jeb Bush falls will be interesting.”

Both organizing supporters and giving a well-received speech are keys to performing well.

“Those who win the straw poll traditionally have delivered a strong performance at CPAC but also fill the room with people who believe in them,” said GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway, who is running the straw poll. “You can convert or persuade some in the audience, but it's also the legwork that's been done up to that moment in filling a room with your supporters.”

Paul’s supporters were out in force to cheer him on Friday with throngs of backers wearing "Stand with Rand" buttons to cheer him on.

Members of a libertarian group Young Americans for Liberty said they’d brought in hundreds of Paul supporters from all over the East Coast, and some said they took full advantage of a glitch in the electronic voting system allowed them to choose Paul as both their first and second choices.

Paul will also likely draw big support from members of the Leadership Institute, a libertarian-leaning nonprofit and CPAC sponsor that trains young grassroots conservatives and had a large presence at the event.

Bush made a big push as well, busing hundreds of supporters in from Georgetown and K Street in Washington, D.C. and paying for their costly entrance tickets to make sure he had friendly faces in the crowd and a decent showing in the poll. He didn’t appear on last year’s ballot.

And while Walker didn’t seem to be making any noticeable organizational push to win, there was a palpable excitement from the activist base about his speech that could push him to a strong showing. He tied for fifth with seven percent last year.

Bush and Walker aren't the only candidates to watch Saturday night.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) finished a distant second to Paul last year and gave another rousing speech, but once again showed no organizational effort. 

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) nearly beat Paul two years ago, but fell to seventh last year during his immigration reform push, which he spent much of his appearance explaining on Friday in a well-received speech. But Rubio's team had no visible efforts at CPAC.

Others who gave strong speeches, like businesswoman Carly Fiorina and neurosurgeon Ben Carson, could build momentum with strong showings in the contest. 

And whether the poll has much long-term predictive value, its winner gets a slew of helpful headlines.

“It's not determinative but it's not nothing,” said Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist, who sits on the board of the group that organizes CPAC. “It'll be in the newspaper the next day.”

Jonathan Easley contributed. 

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