Western Conservative Summit: Straw polls, strawmen and underdog winners

The candidates without any experience in elected office polled best among conservatives gathered in Denver this weekend for the 6th Annual Western Conservative Summit.

Dr. Ben Carson – the neurosurgeon-turned-presidential-candidate from Maryland — won the Centennial Institute’s straw poll for the second year in a row with 26 percent of votes cast. He once again impressed Summit-goers with his intelligence and gravitas.

Former CEO of Hewlett-Packard Carly Fiorina is the only woman running in the GOP. She came in a close second, though she arguably got the biggest boost out of the Summit, since many conference attendees said they barely knew anything about her.

Possible candidate Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker came in third.

Three other presidential contenders were at the Summit: Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum.

In the straw poll, 871 people cast votes. Summit attendees hail from all over the country, with the majority coming from Colorado or neighboring western states. Many are professionally involved in politics in one way or another. Ideologically, attendees run the gamut. “Conservative” is perhaps the only label that could apply to everyone, but within that are strands of libertarianism, Christian-family values and free-market enthusiasm.

On the stage Saturday night, Carson talked about the need to shake up the status quo in Washington and why he’s the best man to do it.

“The professional politicians say you can’t do it because you’re not a politician,” he said. “I say I can do it because I’m not a politician.” The crowd cheered him on.

Carson joined the crowded Republican field in May. At first he was considered a long-shot, but bigger name candidates keep stumbling while Carson continues to rise in the polls. This week, a Reuters/Ipsos poll placed Carson third in the race; an NBC/WSJ poll placed him fourth; and a Citizens’ United poll placed him first.

Carson’s recent surge could indicate primary voters are fed up with career politicians and the party establishment. And for political observers looking ahead to the Iowa caucus at the end of the summer, that matters.

To get ahead in the primary, candidates must win over voters who see Republican party leaders as only slightly less of an enemy than the Democrats. But to actually cinch the nomination, candidates will need the approval (and dollars) of the center-right establishment.

Nowhere is the tension between party politics and anti-establishment conservatism more clear than in the straw poll results from this weekend. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush got four votes. That’s four in total, not 4 percent. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie got three. And to put that in perspective, billionaire Donald Trump got fifteen.

Summit attendee CJ Umberson, 53, said she’s worried about the direction the country is headed, so she drove down from Fort Collins to see what the Republican candidates are all about. She’s a conservative, but is as skeptical of some Republicans as she is of Democrats.

At this point, it’s still too early to decide who she’ll support, but she knows who she won’t support. “Jeb Bush — no, no and no!”

“The only reason he’s a candidate is because his last name is Bush,” she said. “He doesn’t have anywhere near conservative values.”

She said the same thing about Gov. Chris Christie whom she described as “unreliable.”

Former CEO of Hewlitt-Packard Carly Fiorina got second place in the straw poll, but arguably got the biggest boost out of the Summit. She had the crowd enthralled on Saturday with a speech that served as a first introduction to many in the audience. She talked about starting her career as a secretary, getting fired, overcoming cancer and then rising to CEO of a multibillion dollar corporation.

Like Mitt Romney in the last election, Fiorina argued that her success as a CEO would translate into success as the president. Also like Romney, Fiorina found herself defending all the layoffs she ordered. They were tough decisions, she said, but necessary in the long run.

She put her national security chops on display, rattling off a list of world leaders she’s personally met. She said the first thing she would do in office is call up “Bibi” Netanyahu to “show what a true ally America is” to Israel. The audience erupted in applause.

Fiorina said she’s been asked whether her hormones would interfere with her ability to govern.

“Ladies, here’s a little test,” she said. “Can any of you think of a single instance in which a man’s judgment might have been clouded by his hormones? Any at all, including in the Oval Office?”

Jan Howman, an active member of the Republican party in Lakewood, said she loved hearing no-nonsense conservative values, especially coming from a strong female voice. The prospect of a female president is exciting to Howman, “But it can’t be just any woman. It has to be the right woman.”

Her husband Richard thought Scott Walker gave the best presentation.

Walker headlined Saturday night, delivering a from-the-trenches kind of speech about warding off a recall effort in Wisconsin. “[The unions] were trying to intimidate us. I’m proud to tell you tonight that we were not intimidated. We took the power out of the hands of big special interests.”

The Young Conservatives Leadership Conference, a weeklong program for teenagers leading up to the Summit, took its own straw poll. There, more predictably, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz won.

The straw poll at the Summit might not have significant impact on race tectonics but shows how conservative voters in the West view their choices.

For what it’s worth, these voters have pretty different tastes than the respondents to a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll that surveyed 1,000 people, equal parts Republican, Democratic and Independent.

The chart below shows the results of the 2015 Western Conservative Summit straw poll in red and results of the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll in blue.

The Western Conservative Summit straw poll winners are outlined in pink.

Untitled drawing (10)

Whoever ends up winning the Republican nomination will go on to face either Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley or Independent Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders.

With so many candidates (and competing visions of conservatism) on the Republican side, the struggle for the nomination is sure to be spectacular if not predictable.

Photo via Western Conservative Summit livestream.