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Why you should ignore the CPAC straw poll
The Conservative Political Action Conference's main event attracts plenty of press, but the results are almost meaningless
 
Mitt Romney won the CPAC straw poll last year. Lotta good that did him...
Mitt Romney won the CPAC straw poll last year. Lotta good that did him... Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The CPAC straw poll is the most closely watched event at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference — which kicked off today — as the results are often interpreted as a sign of who's primed to represent the party in the next presidential election.

Yet despite all the hoopla, the straw poll has rarely served as an accurate sign of future success. And given the state of this year's conference, that's not about to change either.

Since the straw poll's inception in 1976, only two winners have gone on to the White House: Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Just one other past winner, Mitt Romney, even managed to capture the party's presidential nomination.

More often than not, fringe candidates or short-lived party stars have won the dubious prize, only to blow it in the next primary election. That is, if they even wound up running in the first place.

Rudy Giuliani, Jack Kemp, and Steve Forbes all won at CPAC, and they all failed miserably come primary season. Kemp won the CPAC straw poll three different times, yet the closest he came to the White House was a supporting gig as Bob Dole's running mate. 

Then there's former Sen. George Allen of Virginia, who won the 2006 straw poll and, months later, lost his re-election bid. He didn't even bother with the 2008 presidential race.

The tendency for the poll to have little bearing on future primary races is a product of CPAC's structure. The gathering caters to the more conservative side of the party, not the party as a whole, meaning straw poll voters are not representative of the primary electorate.

In addition, the poll has a notoriously low participation rate; roughly 34 percent of attendees bothered to cast a ballot last year. That poor turnout rate is exactly how Ron Paul, a two-time winner, fared so well at CPAC despite his near-pariah status within the party at large. His loyal fan base flooded the event, stacking the odds in his favor and prompting a not-so-subtle rule change intended to bolster turnout and keep that from happening again.

Comparing CPAC vote to Iowa's Ames Straw Poll, another hyped Republican event with similarly poor predictive value, Politico's Roger Simon called the gathering, "the Ames Straw Poll without the fun."

That's more true than ever this year, as CPAC has moved further to the right — or at least failed to inch toward the middle after the GOP's 2012 drubbing. Organizers spurned popular Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.), instead giving speaking slots to Sarah Palin and Donald Trump.

The ballot itself isn't even wholly representative of the presumptive 2016 field. Jeb Bush, one of the biggest names widely believed to be plotting a presidential bid, asked to have his name removed from the ballot. Given the poll's poor track record, that might not be such bad idea if he really is serious about running.

 
Jon Terbush is an associate editor at TheWeek.com covering politics, sports, and other things he finds interesting. He has previously written for Talking Points Memo, Raw Story, and Business Insider.

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