After Ron Paul won the 2011 Conservative Political Action Conference’s straw poll, many observers said that the poll didn’t matter this year because it was “hijacked” by a passionate “fringe,” unique to the event. This is partly true. Countless Paul admirers, many of them college-aged and on a student’s budget, purchased their own, albeit discounted conference tickets, paid for their own travel and lodging expenses, all in order to support their hero. Even when Mitt Romney was reportedly bussing in people and paying their expenses to support him at CPAC in years past–and of course Romney’s straw poll victories were always touted as reliable and important–nothing really compares to the spontaneous organization and die-hard support characteristic of Paul and his movement. Those disdainful of Paul are absolutely correct when they point out that his enthusiastic supporters are certainly not representative of conservatives-at-large.

And thank God–for it is conservatives-at-large who represent exactly what is wrong with the conservative movement. CPAC 2011 was merely a reflection of this.

In addition to the presidential straw poll, some of the most significant poll results were the 84% of participants who said they wanted to “promote individual freedom by reducing the size and scope of government and its intrusion into the lives of its citizens…” 82% believed “cutting spending is the best way to reduce the federal debt” and strongly opposed raising taxes. These are traditionally conservative, economic and constitutional concerns in the Barry Goldwater vein, and their popularity with CPAC attendees not surprisingly correlates with the budget-slashing goals of the powerful Tea Party movement.

But there is a glaring disconnect between CPAC attendees’ limited government desires and which leaders they find desirable. Second place presidential straw poll winner Romney still defends TARP, his own version of government run healthcare in Massachusetts, and has no limited government record to speak of. Not exactly Tea Party material. Every other speaker considered “viable” 2012 presidential material at CPAC couldn’t really tell the audience where they might cut spending, and certainly not in any ways that would significantly matter, choosing instead to entertain the audience with the usual Democrat bashing and anti-Obama quips.

One exception to the rule was Senator Rand Paul, whose call to cut $500 billion in spending brought the entire CPAC audience to its feet. But Sen. Paul will not be running for president this year. In fact the only Republican likely to run for president, and who would no doubt follow through on such bold budget cuts, is the Senator’s father, who many conventional CPAC attendees dismiss due mostly to Ron Paul’s non-interventionist foreign policy views. Not surprisingly, when during his speech Rand began discussing reducing the Pentagon budget as part of his $500 billion in cuts, the same audience members who cheered wildly for the initial large number simply sat on their hands, seemingly annoyed by the Senator’s budget specifics. Noticing this, Rand admonished the audience, telling them that if they were unwilling to cut defense spending they were nothing more than “big government conservatives.” The Ron Paul “fringe” cheered wildly. The conventional CPAC attendees did not.

This contrast is instructive. Despite assertions that this year’s straw poll victory meant less than in years past due to Paul’s victory, it was arguably the most important poll in recent memory, just not in the way most pundits mean. What it showed is that virtually all conservatives say they want to spend less and limit government–but only a small portion are willing to go to the lengths necessary to do this comprehensively and substantively. This small portion is currently represented almost exclusively by the Republican brand of Ron and Rand Paul. The Paul’s brand is indeed “outside” of the conservative norm, as so many pundits and experts have delighted in pointing out in the wake of Ron’s presidential straw poll victory. But what these same critics should also point out is that it is precisely the mainstream conservative movement that has chronically failed to deliver anything remotely conservative. The Tea Party itself has been valuable to conservatives precisely to the extent that it is “outside” of our conventional politics. The same is true of Ron Paul, and he remains unconventional precisely because he insists on a thorough conservatism.

If the Tea Party does indeed represent a new, serious conservative politics, much of CPAC seemed to represent the same old GOP, still willing to ignore its big government contradictions by masking them with cheap shots against Democrats and other empty conservative rhetoric, a hypocrisy that defined the entire Bush era. The upwards of 80 percent of 2011 CPAC straw poll participants who say they value cutting spending and limiting government above all else, are in reality far more comfortable with conventional politicians unwilling to address either issue than even considering an unconventional politician who would unquestionably address both. Despite his critics, Paul’s win in the straw poll was actually a genuine conservative victory, a rarity at CPAC, and ironically is now disparaged as less than such by attendees who are noticeably less genuine in their conservatism. How irrelevant the Ron Paul folks remain in 2012 and beyond will be largely determined by how irrelevant Republicans insist the issues of debt and government growth remain. And when contrasting the reaction to this year’s presidential straw poll winner to what participants want such leaders to focus on, the 2011 CPAC straw poll is best seen as a gauge of how much the conservative movement is willing to actually be conservative.