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Rand Paul wins CPAC straw poll, Scott Walker comes in second

Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

On Saturday, the results of this year's Conservative Political Action Conference straw poll were announced. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) won for the third consecutive year, with Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) as a close second.

CPAC straw poll percentage

Launched back in the 1970s, CPAC gives Republican presidential hopefuls a chance to speak to a national audience of activist types. In a way, it's an informal kickoff to the 2016 campaign.

But the straw poll, which 3,007 people participated in, provides no real new information about the state of the presidential race. What it shows us is the mood among a small, self-selected group of conservatives who decided to trek out to National Harbor, Maryland to attend this particular conference.

Running down the results

For instance, the age demographics among this group are basically the opposite of the Republican primary electorate. About half of the people who voted in the poll were under age 25, and only 17 percent were older than age 55, pollster Kellyanne Conway said while announcing the outcome.

Rand Paul supporters at CPAC

Rand Paul supporters at CPAC, on Friday. (Alex Wong / Getty)

Support for Paul was likely enthusiastic among these younger, libertarian-leaning attendees — and their relatively high turnout was unsurprising considering recent history. Rand Paul won the straw poll in 2013 and 2014, and his father Ron Paul won it in 2010 and 2011.

Scott Walker's second-place finish also isn't much of a surprise given the recent media attention he's gotten as a potential conservative alternative to Jeb Bush, who has been winning over establishment support. Despite an enthusiastic reception for his Thursday appearance, though, Walker didn't hugely break out of the pack. The Wisconsin governor won about 640 supporters, compared to the 340 or so who went for third and fourth place finishers, Ted Cruz and Ben Carson.

Putative front-runner Jeb Bush came in fifth, despite an appearance at the conference that was highly praised by the media and an organized effort to bus in supporters reported by Slate's Betsy Woodruff. He ended up with about 250 supporters — not too many more than the 80-130 people who each voted for the next runners-up: Rick Santorum, Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina, and Chris Christie.

Past winners

CPAC's annual conference first took place in the 1970s, back when the conservative base held little power in the Republican Party. Ronald Reagan frequently appeared at the conference then, and won some of its earliest straw polls. Once he had become president, Reagan said that his CPAC speech was his "opportunity to dance with the one that brung ya."

But as you can see in this table, CPAC straw polls haven't proven very predictive of who the GOP presidential nominee will be in recent years. Mitt Romney won in 2007 and 2008, but stumbled when he had to face actual voters that year — he failed to win any early states and lost the nomination to John McCain. Romney won again in 2009. But soon Ron Paul supporters began showing up at CPAC in relatively large numbers, giving him the straw poll victory in 2010 and 2011.

CPAC straw poll winners