Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), presumably a long shot in the race for the GOP presidential nomination, crushed his rivals in the Republican Leadership Conference straw poll of party devotees over the weekend with 612 votes. In distant second was former Utah Gov. Jon Hunstman (382 votes), followed by Rep. Michele Bachmann (191 votes). Nominal frontrunner Mitt Romney bagged only 72 votes. Paul, who barely registers in most national polls, also won the CPAC straw poll in February. What's behind Paul's unexpected success at these conservative beauty pageants? Four theories:

1. Paul's fervent followers flood the straw polls
The only people taking Paul's straw-poll win seriously are Paul's acolytes and the news media, says Jazz Shaw at Hot Air. Paul wins "pretty much every straw poll held anywhere in the nation," because his "Ron Paul army" always shows up to "flood the ballot box." The "gadfly Republican" clearly wins the prize for "the most committed supporters," says Rick Moran at American Thinker. But they can't bend reality: Paul mops up the straw polls, then flops when the actual voting starts. 

2. Mainstream polls underestimate Paul's strength
Of course, the media will try to "diminish the importance of [Paul's] victory," says Joe Wolverton II at The New American. But this early in the race, straw polls are the only accurate gauge of a candidate's ability to get out the vote, and Paul's "latest stunning victory" will "further energize his already pumped up boosters," maybe all the way to the White House. Forget the national polls: They have "more to do with the framing of the questions than with the popularity of the candidate."

3. Paul wins only because the frontrunners forefeit
Paul's victory looks impressive... until you realize the neither Romney nor Tim Pawlenty (18 votes) attended the conference, and that Romney isn't participating in any straw polls this year, says Brian Montopoli at CBS News. That left Paul to face only Huntsman and a bunch of B-listers this weekend. What's more, says Carl M. Cannon at RealClearPolitics, the real star of the conference, Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas), opted out of the straw poll, further diminishing Paul's "bragging rights."

4. Libertarians are an increasingly important wing of the GOP
"His followers will tell you that Ron Paul keeps on winning because he is right on the issues," says Tim Stanley at The Telegraph. And they have a point. The fiercely libertarian Paul, an antidote to George W. Bush's big-spending neoconservatism, has been largely vindicated on his two main issues, "fiscal policy and war." Paul may have "a snowball's chance in hell of winning" his party's nomination, but his straw poll win shows he's "a serious contender." Undeniably, says Justin Raimondo at, Paul and the GOP's libertarian wing have had an "enormous intellectual influence" on "the wider Republican electorate."