ABC News' Michael Falcone reports:
There more things change the more things change the same.
For the second year in a row, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Tex., emerged as the potential presidential candidate that an active group of conservative activists want to see at the top of the Republican ticket in 2012.
Paul won this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference straw poll by a healthy margin, getting 30 percent of the vote. His nearest competitor was former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who won 23 percent of the vote. Most of the other possible candidates wound up in the low single digits.
Still, Romney's finish was relatively strong given talk that health care reform legislation he championed in Massachusetts -- which includes an individual mandate -- would alienate the conservative base.
The poll should not necessarily be regarded as an accurate indicator of where the Republican electorate actually stands. Many political figures who have won the CPAC straw polls in past years did not go on to win the Republican presidential nomination.
“A year is an eternity in politics,” GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio, who conducted the straw poll, told ABC News.
Rounding out the top five were former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson (6 percent), New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (6 percent) and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (5 percent). Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who delivered a lenghty speech at the conference on Friday night, each received 4 percent of the vote. (Christie did not attend CPAC.)
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who turned down an invitation to attend CPAC for the fourth year in a row, finished a distant 9th place, garnering only 3 percent of the vote.
It was Paul’s second straight win in the poll, and his first place finish seemed like a foregone conclusion. Paul’s supporters showed up in force at the conference this year and they are particularly adept at helping the once -- and possibly future -- presidential candidate win these kinds of contests.
Paul has legions of enthusiastic student backers who descended on the conference this week, and undoubtedly helped push him to the top. Forty-three percent of all CPAC straw poll voters identified themselves as students and more than half -- 51 percent -- were under the age of 25.
In all, 3,742 conference-goers voted in this years straw poll -- more than twice the number who participated in 2007.
CPAC attendees were also asked to say whether they were satisfied with the field of potential Republican presidential candidates. Fifty-seix percent said they were generally satisfied, while 43 percent said they were not.
Paul, the libertarian-leaning congressman, won last year’s straw poll with 31 percent of the nearly 2,400 votes cast. Mitt Romney came in second with 22 percent of the vote followed by Sarah Palin at 7 percent and Tim Pawlenty at 6 percent.
In 2009, Romney finished first with 20 percent of the vote, ahead of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who received 14 percent. Palin and Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, each got 13 percent.
This year, CPAC attendees cited their top issue as reducing the size of the federal government, followed by reducing government spending and reducing taxes.
“This is what voters voted on in 2010,” Fabrizio said. The results were almost identical last year.
Full 2011 CPAC Straw Poll Results;
Ron Paul – 30 percent
Mitt Romney – 23 percent
Gary Johnson – 6 percent
Chris Christie – 6 percent
Newt Gingrich – 5 percent
Tim Pawlenty – 4 percent
Michele Bachmann – 4 percent
Mitch Daniels – 4 percent
Sarah Palin – 3 percent
Herman Cain – 2 percent
Mike Huckabee – 2 percent
Rick Santorum – 2 percent
John Thune – 2 percent
Jon Huntsman – 1 percent
Haley Barbour – 1 percent
Other – 5 percent
Undecided –1 percent