Paul Ryan currently leads newly launched Tea Party online straw poll

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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If the presidential election were to happen today, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin would be the candidate with the Tea Party most strongly in his corner.

So says the self-proclaimed 2012 Tea Party Straw Poll, an online poll created by Ryan Hecker, founder and organizer of the Tea Party “Contract from America,” and Scott Graves, president of Liberty Lab, that will remain active through the summer. The poll includes 31 potential candidates, ranging from likely Republican presidential contenders, to Democratic President Barack Obama, to several people like Ryan who have expressed little to no interest in running and seem unlikely to do so. Respondents are given the option of two candidates from that list and asked: “In a head-to-head match-up, who would you prefer?”

After the poll went live Tuesday morning in what Hecker calls a “very soft, soft launch,” he e-mailed it out to his e-mail list, mostly Tea Partiers. By 5 p.m. that day, the site had gotten 650,000 hits. The number of people who actually voted was in the tens of thousands.

The results suggest that the respondents so far prefer many candidates who seemingly aren’t interested in running in 2012 over those who are seen as likely candidates. As of today, Ryan leads, followed closely by New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie, Republican South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, and Minnesota Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann.

Among the core group of Republicans considered both likely to run and viable contenders, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty leads, currently in fifth place in the straw poll. Sarah Palin, theoretically the Tea Party powerhouse, currently ranks ninth. Mitt Romney, seen by many as close to a frontrunner as there is among the Republican candidates, is ranked 18th at time of publication.

Hecker says the poll is “definitely more legitimate than any other straw poll or any other online poll out there.”

“There are so many straw polls out there that are just gamed,” he said, either by “campaigns that have more online support” than they do among the general population, or straw polls that make sure they have a lot of supporters there.

His straw poll, he says, is more practical. Because it pits two candidates against each other, you can’t just keep voting for the same person over and over again.

“Maybe your favorite candidate is Mitt Romney or Ron Paul,” Hecker said, “but you’re not going to get Ron Paul every time.” This, he says, makes the poll a much better predictor in an election because a voter’s favorite candidate may not be an option: he or she may choose not to run, may drop out, or may cease to be a viable candidate at some point in the race.

But Hecker and Graves are hoping to do more than just predict the outcome. They want the poll to have an “impact.”

“My hope is that it really, that it may inspire some of these candidates, who…may be on the fence or even just 5 percent considering to run,” Hecker said. “It may … give them a little push to see that there’s grassroots backing.”

“A potential candidate might see a real mandate there,” he said.

He explained that this is partly why he included so many potential candidates, even those like Ryan who seem unlikely to run. It might “create some excitement” around certain candidates that hadn’t previously received as much attention. “It could have some impact on the media,” he postulated. For instance, he suggested, “if Sen. DeMint polls as well as he has so far.”

On the practical side, he also noted that because it was a “completely open race,” they had opted to “include every possibility,” because “if someone were to decide to run in three months from now and was a very viable candidate” and they didn’t have him in the poll, then “we’d pretty much become obsolete.”

At the moment, the participants in the poll are mostly from Tea Partiers on Hecker’s e-mail distribution list.

“It’s called the Tea Party Straw Poll and right now it is primarily Tea Party,” he said. But he has plans to expand the audience.

“We’re definitely going to send it to, hopefully, more left wing organizations and lists.”

Hecker expects the poll will be a good indicator of where the grass roots population really stands on candidates.

“Every single candidate is going to want to claim Tea Party support,” he said. This poll, therefore, will be “valuable in terms of gauging where members of the Tea Party really are in terms of candidate support.”