Does the Texas congressman’s victory at this year’s conservative convocation signal changing priorities — or a survival strategy — for the movement?
by David Franke
The Beltway Conservative establishment has its hands full right now, not to mention pie on its face. It has to explain how Ron Paul won the presidential straw poll at this year’s just-concluded Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).
It wasn’t even close. Paul got 31% of the vote, a 40% margin over runner-up Mitt Romney’s 22% of the vote. Romney was the Beltway Conservative candidate, and had won the last three CPAC straw polls. Paul and Romney were followed by a number of single-digit fringe candidates such as Sarah Palin (7%), Tim Pawlenty (6%), Newt Gingrich (4%), and Mike Huckabee (4%).
The official line is: This doesn’t mean anything, folks. Our straw poll isn’t scientific. The people who win our straw votes never win the presidency or the Republican nomination anyway, so don’t pay it any attention.
Funny. I voted for Ron Paul at CPAC and I didn’t see any notice on the ballot warning, “This poll is unscientific and stupid. But if you’re bored and still want to vote, here are your choices.”
Sea Change at CPAC Mirrors Changes in the GOP and Nation
As the nation’s economic and fiscal stability deteriorates, voter priorities are changing.
In the nation at large, independents are the sexiest voters around. Both Republicans and Democrats are wooing them as if every day is Valentine’s Day. And all the polls show that the independents are “fiscal conservatives” who put economic issues above social issues.
In the GOP, the three big victors this year – in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts – placed more emphasis on economic issues than social issues, and won by capturing the independent vote. Indeed, Scott Brown has become a Republican hero for capturing “Teddy Kennedy’s seat” and returning it to the people, and got a rousing welcome at CPAC. It doesn’t seem to matter that he’s soft on the social issues.
Even in Congress – the most backward part of the nation – who would have guessed two years ago, or even one year ago, that Rep. Ron Paul would have hundreds of cosponsors for his bill to audit the Fed?
So, too, are things changing at CPAC, the largest gathering of conservative activists each year. To be sure, the neoconned are still in control – witness the applause that greeted Dick Cheney at his surprise appearance, and the emphasis given to War Party rhetoric by most of the establishment speakers. But they are meeting more and more resistance, and Ron Paul’s victory in the presidential straw poll is only the most visible sign. Let’s look at some of the undercurrents.
First, a general observation. Fabrizio McLaughlin & Associates conducts the straw poll each year, and they ask about a lot more than presidential choices. Some of the questions change from year to year, reflecting what’s in the headlines, but most questions are repeated each year, allowing us to measure trends. Only CPAC registrants are allowed to vote (your badge is checked). And the total straw polls cast this year was the highest in CPAC’s history – 2,395, up from 1,757 in 2009 and 1,558 in 2008. This no doubt reflects the “stimulus” effects of an Obama administration on the opposition.
You’ve seen this excuse from the neoconned spokesmen and media: “Ron Paul won because a majority of CPAC attendees were college students, and we know that’s his strength. But they don’t reflect the country as a whole.”
The truth: The percentage of students declined this year, to 48% from 52% in 2009. And the percentage of registrants aged 18 to 25 also declined this year, to 54% from 57% in 2009. (The percentage of those under 18 stayed the same both years – 2%.) So the growth in Ron Paul’s popularity cannot be dismissed as merely a surge of college or young voters.
Young people are the future of our nation and our movement, blah blah blah, you’ve heard that endlessly from every politician in the land. So when do you start dumping on the young people? When you need an excuse for explaining away the Ron Paul phenomenon.
The pie got larger this year (more registrants), but CPAC demographics remained remarkably constant from 2009 to 2010. So the surge in support for Ron Paul cannot be explained with some sort of “takeover” conspiracy.
Mitt Romney’s fortunes at CPAC this year remained pretty much the same as last year. The neoconned establishment’s candidate got 20% of the vote last year, and actually increased his share this year to 22%. What happened was that Ron Paul gained at the expense of all the fringe candidates:
Paul: up 18%, from 13% in 2009 to 31% in 2010
Palin: down 6%, from 13% to 7%
Pawlenty: up 4%*, from 2% to 6%
Gingrich: down 6%, from 10% to 4%
Huckabee: down 3%, from 7% to 4%
Undecided: down 3%, from 9% to 6%
*Pawlenty’s political machine mounted a determined offensive at CPAC this year, which explains this gain. But they couldn’t fight the Ron Paul surge.
It’s now official – the race is between Ron Paul and Mitt Romney. Let’s get it on!
CPAC Attendees on the Issues
I mentioned at the beginning of this article that voter priorities are changing in the face of economic disaster. This is evident in the straw votes at CPAC.
Each year attendees are asked about their most important political goal, with three choices. I think there are problems with the wording of the three choices, but since that wording stays the same from year to year, we can measure trends. Those whose primary goal is to reduce the size and scope of government rose from 74% in 2009 to 80% this year. Promoting traditional values dropped from 15% to 9%. And guaranteeing American safety at home and abroad dropped from 10% to 7%.
Then they are given a list of more specific issues and asked which is most and second most important to them personally. Combining “most important” with “second most important,” here are the results:
Reducing size of federal government. Up 9%, from 43% to 52%
Reducing government spending. Up 9%, from 24% to 33%
The war on terrorism. Down 5%, from 23% to 18%
Lowering taxes. Down 4%, from 22% to 18%
Doing away with abortion. Down 5%, from 15% to 10%
Stimulating the economy to create jobs. No change, 9% and 9%
Restoring honesty to government. Down 2%, from 8% to 6%
Protecting gun owners’ rights. Down 1%, from 7% to 6%
Illegal immigration. Down 5%, from 10% to 5%
Improving education. No change, 5% and 5%
Promoting traditional values. Down 3%, from 8% to 5%
The war in Iraq. Down 2%, from 5% to 3%
In addition, three issues were on the list this year but not last year:
Reforming Social Security 3%
Stopping gay marriage 1%
Reducing health care costs 1%
I doubt that CPAC conservatives have become more liberal, or libertarian, on social issues. What has changed are their political priorities. Addressing our economic and government spending crisis has come to the forefront, and that explains the Ron Paul surge within the ranks of CPAC. After all, Ron Paul is the only candidate who has a consistent record of fighting for fiscal sanity in Washington, and now he is reaping the rewards.
David Franke was one of the founders of the conservative movement in the 1950s and 1960s, when Democrats and liberals were the ones who believed in big government, fiscal recklessness, and an imperial presidency. This article originally appeared at LewRockwell.com.