Hmmmm…let’s see. It might be easiest to break this down by categories:
No Intention of actually running…
John R. Bolton
Jon Huntsman, Jr.
Might form an exploratory committee and/or do a few straw polls, but not serious…*
Gary E. Johnson
Probably in it for the long haul…
Absent some watershed moment and/or sea change in American politics.
I came by to more or less recreate Zawalke’s list, so I guess I don’t have much to add. I think John Huntsman will actually run, but with the intention of getting his name know for 2016, not because he thinks he’ll win.
And wasn’t Sarah Palin winning them a few months back, only to finally have her support start crumbling underneath her recently? It should be illegal to talk about presidential races until . . . let’s say . . . April of election year.
Edit: And I seem to recall that Ron Paul won a shit ton of straw polls in 2007/2008, which tells you all you need to know about them.
I’ll amend Zakalwe’s post to say that some of his “no intention of running” folks will in fact officially run, for the first few primaries at least. Sarah Palin, for one, I think is a lock for throwing her hat into the ring.
And Tim Pawlenty certainly seems to be serious about running, but there’s no chance in Hell of him getting the nomination. I would predict exactly how many votes he’s going to get, but I don’t know how large his immediate family is.
I’m willing to wager that Sarah Palin is going to do whatever has the best chance of bringing Sarah Palin more money and power. If an exploratory committee finds that she has a fart’s chance in a blizzard (which it will), she will find some sort of profitable support role to play in the whole circus. And don’t be surprised if her narrative is “you had your chance at me in 2008 and I’m just too old and wise to want that now.”
Here’s the winners of the previous CPAC straw polls from wikipedia. As you say, they’re not terribly good predictors of future candidate success:
1976 Ronald Reagan
1980 Ronald Reagan
1984 Ronald Reagan
1986 Jack Kemp
1987 Jack Kemp
1993 Jack Kemp
1995 Phil Gramm
1998 Steve Forbes
1999 Gary Bauer 
2000 George W. Bush 
2005 Rudy Giuliani 
2006 George Allen
2007 Mitt Romney
2008 Mitt Romney
2009 Mitt Romney
2010 Ron Paul
2011 Ron Paul
Indeed, they seem to often go for candidates, like Pau, I’d say were pretty unlikely to ever have a chance of actually being nominated.
I think it’ll be Romney this time. I don’t think his Mormonism is really an issue.
I agree that some of the “might” on Zakalwe’s list will run with no real expectation of winning, but to start building name recognition, connections, and donor lists for the future. Rand Paul and Paul Ryan are on my short list for that role.
Romney has two fatal flaws, his health care plan and his religion. The backwater rube elephants who jump on stools shrieking “Eeek! Muslims!” aren’t about to embrace someone they consider to be a heretic. Nor are they likely to give Romney a pass on his state health care plan.
Sarah Palin isn’t interested in running for president, she’s too busy running for billionaire. As long as the chumps keep throwing money at her, she’ll happily rake it in. Running for president will only hurt her long term earning potential, so I don’t see her doing it.
Out of an extraordinarily weak field, I’m going with Huckabee for lack of an alternative. He’s right wing enough to win the Iowa caucus and South Carolina primaries. Not sure how he’ll do in New Hampshire but I like his positioning, given the primary calendar.
As in the last go-around, the GOP field is so problematic that one wonders how any of these bozos can win the nomination.
My WAG is that the nomination will go to whichever of the Establishment empty suits (Romney, Daniels, Pawlenty, Thune) can do the best job of convincing the wingnuts that he’s one of them.
Palin will run, if only to keep her name in play so she can make more money off her fan club. But she won’t win the nomination.
Gingrich has made a career out of considering throwing his hat into the Presidential ring. He won’t actually DO it, because his base (which is the same base as McCain used to have - the DC press/pundit corps) would have to admit that nobody gives a shit about this guy out in the real world.
Huckabee’s in a lousy position this time - not establishment enough to please the GOP’s corporatist base, but not crazy enough for the Teahadists. He’ll run, he may win a number of primaries, but he’s not winning the nomination.
Huntsman’s all about 2016.
Giuliani won’t run if he’s got half a brain - what makes him think he could do better this time than last?
What makes Santorum think he can do better nationally than he did in his own state last time?
Haley Barbour: even the GOP’s got the smarts not to nominate Boss Hogg.
George Pataki: he’s got nothing else to do with himself these days, so he might as well run for President. Damned if I know who’s going to vote for him.
In all likelihood, the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary will, between them, either settle the nomination or determine the two finalists. So in discussing any GOP hopeful, a good question to ask is: which of those primaries are they going to try to win, and what are their chances?
Gotta like Romney’s chances in NH. Hard to tell who’s going to win Iowa; the Huckster won it last time, but that’s no guarantee of a repeat. And any Midwesterners in the race (e.g. Pawlenty, Daniels, Thune, or whichever of them decide to run) would undoubtedly try hard to win it.
The reason Palin will run (for the first couple of primaries) is that it’ll put her name back in the spotlight, where it’s currently already fading. She won’t have to actually spend any significant amount of money on it, and will probably actually make more from her speakers’ fees than she spends on any advertising. Then, when she’s forced out by the candidates who actually stand a snowball’s chance in Hell, she’ll have yet another victimization she can whine about.
I still think that, at the present moment, Romney is the best bet, but Mitch Daniels is getting in the news enough lately (in nonnegative ways) that he’s perfectly plausible, too. It seems like the establishment might be grooming him as a more electable alternative.