Rand Paul Narrowly Defeats Marco Rubio in CPAC Straw Poll

Rebecca Kaplan
National Journal

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky won a straw poll of Republicans at the Conservative Political Action Conference Saturday, narrowly defeating fellow Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida in a vote that reflected a looming battle for the heart and soul of the party.

Paul received 25 percent of the vote to Rubio’s 23 percent of the 2,930 people polled. The two were far ahead of the rest of the pack, with third place going to former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania (8 percent), fourth to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who was not invited to speak at the conference (7 percent), and fifth place to Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the 2012 GOP vice presidential candidate (6 percent).

Paul’s victory comes on the heels of his 13-hour filibuster of CIA nominee John Brennan earlier this month, which raised his national profile and won him plaudits with many fellow Republicans and conservative activists. Young attendees at the conference flooded the halls sporting “Stand with Rand” buttons and posters, the catchphrase of the social-media movement that cheered Paul on during his hours on the Senate floor.

The results show that Paul has wasted no time in capturing the support of the youth-driven movement that backed his father, former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. The elder Paul won the straw poll in 2010 and 2011 before losing to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012, who was by then the expected nominee of the party. Fifty-two percent of those who voted in the straw poll were between the ages of 18 and 25, the demographic that most identifies with the libertarian ideology of the Paul family.

But Paul's was a narrow victory, a 2-percentage-point margin (approximately 60 votes) over Rubio, who is often seen as the face of the next generation of the GOP. The two young, charismatic senators gave back-to-back speeches on Thursday, the first day of the conference, where they highlighted the two visions for the party that are likely to be locked in competition until the 2016 election.

Rubio’s message was that the longtime conservative worldview of opportunity conservatism, a robust presence abroad, and traditional social values needs a savvy messaging overhaul that will appeal to a wider swaths of Americans. Paul would prefer that the party refocus its work around fighting for civil liberties and reducing U.S. entanglements abroad.

In a reflection of the support for Paul’s foreign policy views, 50 percent of respondents said U.S. allies around the world should provide for their own defense, while only 24 percent said the United States should take a leading role in protecting its Asian and European allies.

Though the CPAC straw poll is hardly a scientific measure of the entire Republican Party, it does reflect the feelings of the most ardent activists. In the six years leading up to 2013, Romney won four times and Ron Paul twice -- the two politicians representing dueling ideologies during the 2012 primary election.

The second tier of results shows that the party has not united around a third person to perhaps take on these two in the coming years. Santorum, who has remained active in national politics since he tried to unseat Romney for the party’s nomination last spring, won 8 percent. Christie was not invited to speak because he criticized House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, during the congressional fight over a bill to aid victims of Hurricane Sandy. But his high-profile battles with unions have made him a popular figure with many in the party, and he still received 7 percent of the vote. Ryan, whose speech focused almost entirely on the budget he just authored for House Republicans, received 6 percent.

The poll was sponsored by The Washington Times and conducted by Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates. After Paul and Rubio, the results were: former Sen. Rick Santorum, 8 percent; New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, 7 percent; Rep. Paul Ryan, 6 percent; Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, 5 percent; neurosurgeon Ben Carson, 4 percent; Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, 4 percent; Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, 3 percent; former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, 3 percent. Other candidates received a combined 14 percent.