Every year since 1973 thousands of conservatives from across the country gather about our nation’s capital for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, also known as “CPAC.”
CPAC has long been known a training ground for young conservatives, an exhibition stage for up-and-coming politicians and media personalities, as well as a barometer of the overall conservative movement.
However it also almost every year attracts slews of controversies and criticisms. This year they ranged from the invitation of controversial French nationalist-populist politician Marion Le Pen, daughter of former French President Marine Le Pen, to Dinesh D’Souza’s insensitive statement on the Florida school tragedy prior to the conference that led organizers to clarify he was not a speaker.
During the conference more gaffes popped up as well, as panelist Mona Charen denounced CPAC and conservatives from on-stage for giving Trump and other Republicans a pass on their moral failures, a strange statement regarding Michael Steele’s time as RNC Chair, and the booing of John McCain.
Nonetheless, this year’s CPAC had a wide range of well-known personalities from across the GOP world, ranging from President Donald Trump himself to rising millennial star Ben Shapiro, as well as other figures including Sean Hannity, John Bolton, Kellyanne Conway, and a slew of other executive branch officials and media personalities.
It was worth noting too who wasn’t there. Few overt “Never Trumper” conservatives, past or present, were given a platform. There was also minimal Congressional presence, with Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) being the only Senator along with a small smattering of Congresspersons.
While Congress being on recess at the time undoubtedly contributed to the lack of representation from Congressional Republicans, polls showing massive double-digit leads for Democrats in 2018 on a generic ballot may have contributed to the desire of many Congresspersons to try to avoid hyper-ideological associations.
Also notable was the absence of Steve Bannon, who had been a major headliner presence at the prior year’s CPAC. Bannon has essentially disappeared ever since his denunciation in January by President Trump amid the fallout from the “Fire and Fury” book, which itself has recently been shown to be of increasing unreliability.
The speakers aside, CPAC ended up having a resoundingly pro-Trump audience, with its annual straw poll showing over 93% of attendees approved of Trump’s performance as President as of far compared to 85% among Republicans in general and around 40% with the overall public.
Despite it seeming like a niche event, each year’s CPAC is a strong reflection of the current mood of the most dedicated conservatives. It is here that the key ideas and people that end up taking roles of influence and responsibility in government, think tanks, and media all connect to and from.
Furthermore, the bulk of CPAC’s attendees are young. Consistently over half are usually under 25 years old, meaning that CPAC also sheds light on what the future of conservatism looks like.
It is worth remembering that while CPAC may reflect the conservative movement’s most dedicated activist and policy base very well, it often does not accurately mirror that of the overall Republican Party.
For example, the winner of CPAC’s annual presidential straw poll in 2016 was Ted Cruz with 40% followed by Marco Rubio with 30%, when at the time then-candidate Trump was the clear consensus candidate among the GOP base.
In 2013, 2014, and 2015, Rand Paul was the straw poll winner, following up his father Ron Paul’s wins in 2010 and 2011. Mitt Romney won the straw poll in 2008, 2009, and 2012, but that was only after what appears to have been a coordinated political operation rather than the opinion of organic CPAC attendees.
CPAC in the age of Trump undoubtedly represents well the uncertain footing the conservative movement and Republican Party is on. Even the past few weeks we’ve seen as how contradictory beliefs on trade and firearms has split many populists from traditional conservatives after what’s already been a tense few years.
As CPACs of the future roll about, undoubtedly eyes from both the left and right will continue watching to see the future of the core intellectual, policy, and activist heart and soul of the Republican Party and conservative movement.