Coveted CPAC straw poll offers a blurry snapshot of future presidential field

Potential 2016 GOP presidential contenders will get an early indication Saturday of where they stand when results from Conservative Political Action Conference straw poll — traditionally a snapshot of support for White House aspirants — are released.

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Three and a half years out from the next presidential election, the stakes aren’t exactly high for the straw poll participants.

But the poll remains a coveted achievement for GOP rising stars looking forward to a presidential run.

That’s because despite its mixed history as a barometer of future presidential success,  a top finish still generates increased both media and grassroots attention — and perhaps even a boost in donations.

Perhaps more significant, though less tangible, the straw poll can give added legitimacy within the movement to the winner.

“It’s the weather vane,” David Bossie, president of the conservative group Citizens United, told The Hill.

“The CPAC poll is the pulse of the conservative movement in a snapshot of time.”

Pundits roaming the halls on Friday at CPAC, including Bossie, predicted Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) had the best chance of victory.

The first-term senator delivered a well-received speech on Thursday espousing the libertarian views popularized by his father, former GOP presidential contender Ron Paul (R-Texas).

The 23 names on the poll are likely to divide the vote enough that no single candidate will receive more than 25-30 percent support.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) — two of the bigger names on the ballot — may be vying for the same pocket of support.

But Paul is essentially the only potential candidate making a pitch to libertarians — a group that typically flocks to the conference.

Young libertarian activists in past years have turned out in droves for Paul’s father, who won two previous straw polls at CPAC.

The elder Paul was known for busing in supporters, and that maneuvering caused critics to question the legitimacy and significance of the poll.

Questions about the relevance of this year's poll were brought into sharp focus with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's request to have his name removed from the 23-person ballot. 

Conversely, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell — two state leaders who have fallen out of favor with CPAC organizers and were not invited to the conference — are on the ballot.  

Aides to Rubio, Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum said none of the men had launched orchestrated efforts to get out the straw poll vote.

But for much of the day on Thursday, volunteers for Paul’s leadership PAC, RAND PAC, handed out “Stand with Rand” t-shirts and collected signatures 10 feet away from a row of computers set up for straw poll voting.

A consistent stream of supporters crowded around the t-shirt giveaway and funneled through to vote in the poll all day.

And multiple volunteers handing out "Stand with Rand" posters and stickers said that they had been instructed by organizers from the conservative advocacy group Young Americans for Freedom to urge supporters to go to the poll for Paul.

Along with Ron Paul, past winners of the CPAC straw poll include businessman Steve Forbes and social conservative leader Gary Bauer — none of whom went on to win the Republican presidential primary.

Mitt Romney’s 2012 win returned the poll to prominence.

It also momentarily assuaged the fears of those in the Republican Party concerned Romney lacked the organizational capacity and conservative support needed to win in 2012.

And American Conservative Union President Al Cardenas said the straw poll results were verified last year when he conducted a field poll, and the results of the two lined up.

"Last time that we heard from the peanut gallery about the accuracy of these straw polls and what did they really mean, it was a presidential election year. I decided to do both a presidential election poll with a representative sample universe ... and we did the straw poll. And they both had the same one-two-three finish," he said. "It was a pretty good response to those naysayers."

The straw poll can, Bossie said, “give life to people who didn’t really have it” prior to the conference.

“You don’t have to win it, but you can get a decent number of votes and people will look at you a little bit differently. Donors look at you a little bit differently. Grassroots supporters and organizers look at you a little bit differently,” he said.

This year’s straw poll offers the GOP a very preliminary quantitative look at its potential 2016 slate.

About half of the 23 candidates listed on the ballot spoke at CPAC.

For conference speakers like Rubio (R-Fla.) and Paul, who outlined their visions for the future of the Republican Party, is an early message-testing opportunity.

Though the presidential race is years off, GOP consultant Matt Mackowiak pointed out that candidates usually begin building their campaigns immediately after Election Day in 2014.

He said any measure of support they can collect in the meantime will help position them well when they launch that process.

“[The straw poll] is a way to demonstrate momentum among the grassroots,” he said.

“It’s a way to demonstrate that you have star power, and that you can develop support from lots of different constituencies — social conservatives, the Tea Party, national security conservatives.”

Some of the failed 2012 GOP contenders, if they don’t manage to break into the top five or six at CPAC, may continue to see their stars fade.

Mackowiak cited former candidates Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R ) and Santorum as two potential 2016 contenders who may suffer from a lower position in the poll.

But John Brabender, a top aide to Santorum, said the former senator wasn’t concerned with the poll. Rather, Brabender said Santorum spoke at the conference more to expand his advocacy organization, Patriot Voices.

Santorum finished second in the 2012 straw poll to Romney, an outcome that Brabender said was due primarily to Romney’s organizational efforts.

“A win in the straw poll doesn’t always translate into votes at the primaries,” Brabender said.

He added that a win is “more important for other people than it is for [Santorum], because he’s already seen as this popular trusted conservative.”

Some CPAC attendees caution not to put too much stock in the results of the straw poll at a time in the cycle where interest in the next presidential election is likely at its low point.

“I think that the media’s so much more interested now in 2016 than a lot of people around the country are,” said Jenny Beth Martin, head of Tea Party Patriots.

Martin said that the grassroots are likely to pay more attention to the potential contenders’ actions over the next three years than the CPAC straw poll.

“It’s interesting to look at [the straw poll] and gauge where people are today, but I think, really, time will tell over the next few years,” she said.  “Are (today’s potential candidates) who we think they are? Are principled people really going to stand for principle when the time comes.”

--This report was updated at 11:47 a.m.