March 10
NATIONAL HARBOR, MD - MARCH 06: Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) speaks at the CPAC Conference, on March 6, 2014 in National Harbor, Maryland. The American Conservative Union (CPAC) held its 41st annual Conservative Political conference at the Gaylord International Hotel. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at the CPAC Conference on March 6 in National Harbor. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Maybe it’s because I watch a lot of Fox News, but it seems like CPAC got a lot of coverage this year — on Fox and elsewhere. The Conservative Political Action Conference, run by the American Conservative Union, has become a permanent presence on the political calendar, so it’s worth examining what CPAC does and does not teach us. Political insiders, pundits and the usual GOP experts privately dismiss CPAC and its attendees as marginal, and I am tempted to do the same. But what other organization could assemble more than 2,500 people in a room for three days to listen to a whole host of Republican party leaders? I can’t think of one.

First, it’s interesting to look at some of CPAC’s own stats about the attendees at this year’s conference. Forty-two percent of the approximately 2,500 attendees were students, and 46 percent were between 18-25 years of age. So the group was not particularly representative of Republican or even conservative voters as a whole. The crowd this year was also decidedly libertarian, as evidenced by the 41 percent of attendees who said they believe “marijuana should be legalized for recreational and medical use.” The young student profile of the CPAC crowd makes it easy to suggest that CPAC says something about the future of the Republican party. But, in fact, a lot of the attendees were College Republicans, who are traditionally an angrier, more libertarian shard of the party. College Republicans are not necessarily representative of things to come.

Interestingly, in today’s fast-paced political environment, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin actually represents something of the “old guard” while New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) probably best embody what’s new about the party. All three received a warm welcome.

CPAC poses something of a challenge for anyone considering a presidential run in 2016. On the one hand, candidates do not want to appear to be captive of the traditional establishment wing of the party. On the other hand, they don’t want to do anything that will frighten or alienate the traditional establishment GOP contributors. Most potential presidential candidates approach CPAC with fear rather than an authentic embrace.

Of course, CPAC also held its annual straw poll. The straw poll is meaningless, so I won’t even recite the results here. Straw polls – including CPAC’s – have become something of a bad habit for state parties and other Republican organizations, but, despite the breathless coverage of the results, they don’t mean anything. Campaigns spend too much time and money chasing the fool’s gold of straw-poll victories.

Anyway, if there was a winner from CPAC, it was probably Christie, who could use a little applause and reassurance from any segment of the GOP faithful right now. I can’t think of any losers from the weekend.

Another CPAC has come and gone. In the next two years, the CPAC hype will only intensify, as candidates and party leaders work to raise their profile ahead of the 2016 elections.

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