Ben Carson secured a hard-earned victory in the presidential straw poll at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, beating Scott Walker and Ted Cruz in a popularity contest among the conservative activists gathered for the three-day summit.
Carson and his supporters made a priority of winning the straw poll, which they hoped would demonstrate his strength among grassroots Republicans. Pro-Carson activists flooded the event, passing out literature and lobbying attendees to support him in the straw poll. His super PAC even purchased 100 tickets to the conference and re-sold them to activists at a cheaper price. “That certainly gave him an advantage,” said Bill Shapard, whose firm, SoonerPoll, conducted the survey.
Carson took 25.4 percent of the 958 votes cast, followed by Walker at 20.5 percent and Cruz at 16.6 percent. Both Carson and Walker addressed the conference and met with attendees, while Cruz had to skip his scheduled Friday night speech because of Senate votes held in Washington.
None of the other Republicans polled competitively. Chris Christie finished fourth with 5.3 percent, followed by Rick Perry at 5 percent and Jeb Bush at 4.9 percent. All three of those prospective candidates spoke here this week. Three others Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Bobby Jindal finished at 4.1 percent each. Most surprising was Mike Huckabee, whose 2016 strategy relies heavily on performing well in the South. He finished in a distant 10th place, tied with Carly Fiorina at only 2.7 percent, possibly because he did not address the conference.
Straw polls are generally not accurate in forecasting success on the presidential campaign trail. And Oklahoma is not expected to play a major role in choosing the GOP nominee in 2016. Still, a survey of the most active conservative voters in one of America’s most conservative states Mitt Romney won each of Oklahoma’s 77 counties in 2012 gives an indication of which candidates are breaking through in Middle America.
“This is not supposed to have any kind of predictive value. The winner probably won’t wind up being president,” said Shapard. “But the straw poll shows which candidates are connecting with the party faithful.”
At the outset of the conference, the straw poll was shaping up to be a showdown between Carson and Cruz. They were the only two candidates with promotional booths at the conference, which were manned by supporters all weekend. (The pro-Carson booth was purchased and operated by super PAC staffers, though the candidate visited with supporters at the booth for an extended time on Saturday morning, and several people at the booth suggested that they had roles with Carson’s campaign.) Cruz also purchased a small number of tickets for supporters to attend the conference. But Cruz’s cancellation took some of the air out of the event. It also allowed Carson to speak to the conference twice once Saturday morning, and once Friday night, giving the keynote address to the Oklahoma GOP fundraising dinner in place of Cruz.
Walker actually won support from a plurality of Oklahomans who participated in the straw poll. But Carson won on his strength from voters in other states, namely Arkansas and Cruz’s home state of Texas.
The poll also asked attendees, among other things, to declare what set of issues social, fiscal, or national security are most important to them. A plurality, 46 percent, identified national security as their top priority, followed closely by economic issues at 40 percent.
Only 42 percent of attendees polled identified themselves as members of the tea party; Cruz won that segment of the vote. People who identified as social conservatives favored Carson, and economic-minded voters preferred Walker.
The poll capped a sleepy conference that saw three scheduled speakers Cruz, Rubio, and Lindsey Graham cancel their appearances due to votes on National Security Agency surveillance. More than 2,000 people registered to attend, organizers said, but the ballroom appeared half empty for many of the speeches. The only consistent source of energy was Carson, whose supporters fanned out across the conference passionately promoting his candidacy.