And, of course, the crowning moment of CPAC was the straw poll which was conducted on Thursday and Friday with the results announced at the end of the conference. Ron Paul won the poll by a sizeable margin, with Mitt Romney coming in a respectable second and Gary Johnson coming in third just ahead of Newt Gingrich and Chris Christie. Perhaps most interesting about the poll was the less publicized section of questions about issues and attitudes, which showed overwhelmingly fiscally conservative and limited government viewpoints among the attendees, along with a desire to downplay divisive social issues.
Almost immediately the spin was out in the media that Paul essentially bought the poll by bringing in ringers to vote and that none of it meant anything, but the truth is that the only voters actually bussed in were brought by Romney and that most of the Paul supporters paid their own way, though at a discounted ticket price. It's also telling that Gary Johnson, who is arguably even more libertarian than Ron Paul, came in third in the poll ahead of a bunch of establishment candidates, as well as coming in first in the little known poll for second choice. The attendees at the convention skewed very young and very much towards libertarian views, representing the tea party and the grassroot. They responded to candidates who had a message of change and reform.
Various groups tried to counter or balance the results of the straw poll and got some media attention for it. Hot Air did an online poll which produced very different results leaning towards more traditioal conservatives. TownHall has offered a series of monthly polls which seem much closer to realistic Republican primary results and the Republican Liberty Caucus did a straw poll at their own convention right after CPAC where Governor Gary Johnson won first and Ron Paul came in second.
While it remains clear that former Governor Mitt Romney remains the candidate to beat, that was also true of Rudy Giuliani in 2008 and he went nowhere fast. Romney may be the establishment choice and the nominal frontrunner in the Republican primary, but his association with socialized medicine is damning and his efforts at CPAC were fairly feeble. His campaign booth in the exhibit hall was abandonned most of the time and the new slogan he debuted - "Believe in America" - is as bland and unappealing as Romney himself.