The Values Voter Summit is an annual confab of several thousand religious right activists in Washington, DC, sponsored by the Family Research Council. This year’s conference was the biggest in its history. Every major Republican candidate for president was invited to speak, and they all did, except for Jon Huntsman. Here are the three things I learned from attending.
Ron Paul ruins straw polls. When I walked into the Values Voter Summit on Saturday morning, the second day of the two-day conference, I encountered a long line of new arrivals registering, and another line for voting in the straw poll. “Great,” I thought, “I’ll interview them about who they’re voting for and why.” I immediately ascertained, though, that the line was composed almost entirely of Ron Paul supporters who had come merely to vote for him. They were decked out in Paul buttons, gladly paying $75 for the privilege of helping Paul win a meaningless poll. “If someone’s going to beat Obama,” I overheard one say to another, “it’s not going to be a social conservative.”
Since the straw poll balloting is secret, the FRC could not say with certainty how badly Paul’s machinations skewed the results. But they said over 600 people arrived Saturday, and some left right after Paul spoke. The official results are that Paul won 732 votes out of the 1,983. That gives him 37 percent. Herman Cain came in second with 23 percent, followed by 16 percent for Rick Santorum, 8 percent each for Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry and 4 percent for Mitt Romney. The fact that Bachmann, Perry and Romney all got fewer votes than Santorum and Cain might indicate some surprising trends among socially conservative activists. The fact that Paul made a mockery of the purpose of the straw poll does not. “[The results] show that Paul has a very good organization, but it’s not predictive,” says Ed Morrissey, an editor for the popular conservative website Hot Air.
Nonetheless, much of the media is reporting the results in a math-illiterate manner. NPR, for instance, while acknowledging the limits of any straw poll and pointing out that social conservatives skew especially against Romney, said that Romney and Perry’s low percentages indicate conservative dissatisfaction with the leading Republican contenders. The fact that Cain outperformed Perry and Romney does reflect that phenomenon. And as I pointed out on Friday, they may also turn to Santorum.
But no one should read too much into Perry and Romney’s percentages. If up to one-third of the voters were not typical attendees but Paul supporters who came just to affect the straw poll, that doesn’t only drive Paul’s percentage up, it drives everyone else’s down. If you subtract 600 of Paul’s votes from the overall number, you get 1,383 votes. Using that as your denominator, Cain would win with 32 percent of the vote, followed by Santorum with 23 percent, Perry with 12 percent, Bachmann with 11 percent (Perry got ten more votes than Bachmann) and Romney with 6 percent. Obviously, that shows weakness among social conservatives for Romney and surprising strength for Cain and Santorum, but it’s not as bad for Perry as most reports are making it out to be.