The Conservative Political Action Conference has concluded its 2009 gathering by releasing the results of a straw poll that reveal not only the preference of members for a 2012 presidential candidate to run against Barack Obama, but also the mood of conservative activists regarding future presidential races, the current president and the current state of politics in America.
The following is the frequency distribution of 2012 presidential preferences articulated by CPAC members attending the 2009 conference (not to be taken for a representative sample of Americans, Republicans or even conservative Republicans by any means):
|Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney||20 percent|
|Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal||14 percent|
|Alaska Governor Sarah Palin||13 percent|
|Texas Representative Ron Paul||13 percent||Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich||10 percent|
|Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee||7 percent|
|South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford||4 percent|
|Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani||3 percent|
|Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty||2 percent|
|Florida Governor Charlie Crist||1 percent|
(percentages do not sum to 100% due to the accumulation of rounding errors)
How seriously should the results of this straw poll be taken as an indicator of the strength of various Republican presidential candidates? Although the CPAC straw poll is meant to be a public relations device to show off the clout of Republican conservatives, the disjuncture between the trends in this poll and actual political events communicates the opposite. In 2007 John McCain finished fourth in the CPAC straw poll, but he mopped the floor with his Republican competitors in 2008. If anything, the CPAC straw poll’s poor predictive ability is an indication of the weakness of the conservative wing of the Republican Party. As conservative a candidate as John McCain was compared to Barack Obama, he was heretically moderate from the CPAC faithful’s point of view, and yet the Republican rank and file chose him in the 2008 primaries.
If the 2009 CPAC straw poll will probably be a dismal failure at predicting the identity of the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, why bother looking at the poll at all? While it’s a rotten indicator for the presidential nomination, it’s a sterling indicator of what it actually is, which is the collected opinion of conservative activists interested in reidentifying themselves and reinvigorating their movement.
Who are these conservative activists, what do they think of themselves, and what do they think of their leaders? They’re young (73% under the age of 40). They’re men (only 29% of respondents said they were women). They’re dittoheads (Rush Limbaugh is their most-mentioned “favorite conservative media personality”). They’re gullible, too: although a majority of Democrats in the U.S. Senate (including liberal stalwarts such as Barbara Boxer, Russell Feingold and Sherrod Brown) just helped to pass a repudiation of the Fairness Doctrine, and although House Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman and President Barack Obama have directly denied having any plan to reintroduce the Fairness Doctrine, CPAC respondents nonetheless have responded to the hysteric, counterfactual right-wing media campaign claiming the Democrats are somehow planning to reintroduce the Fairness Doctrine and — of all things — abolish free speech. CPAC respondents placed restoration of the Fairness Doctrine in the top three of their list of concerns about Democrats in Washington, prompted by the CPAC question which — counter to available evidence — labeled it as one of “President Obama’s and the Democrats in Congress’ policy initiatives.”
Returning to the subject matter of the 2012 elections, although Mitt Romney might be posing for the cameras in celebration right now, behind the bright teeth he should be nervous. That frequency distribution you saw presented a slate of names rather than offering attendees the chance to name their own dream candidate without prepared suggestions. Only 55% percent of respondents indicated they were “generally satisfied with the field of potential candidates,” while 44% agreed with the sentiment that the field of contenders could be better.
As the itty bitty roots emerge from the tiny acorn beneath the dead shell of an oak tree, so the conservative movement starts its effort to grow its way back into the political canopy. Now you know who conservative Republican activists have picked from a list of prepared favorites for 2012, and you also know that almost half of them are waiting for someone better. But what about you? Who would you like to see running against Barack Obama in the presidential elections of 2012? Why?