When conservatives gather Thursday for their annual confab there will be homages to Ronald Reagan everywhere. He’ll be mentioned in speeches, he’ll show up as a life-size cardboard cutout, and on posters and buttons. The event’s big dinner is in his name.
At the Conservative Political Action Conference, Reagan is king. And the many Republicans vying to be president will work feverishly to align with him. But do they?
For the Loop, Crowdpac, a group that mines campaign and political data and assigns ideological scores, compared Reagan’s conservatism during his time in office to the many GOP presidential hopefuls speaking at CPAC over the four-day conference, to see who might be most like the Gipper if Reagan were a politician today.
Crowdpac analyzes donations to and from politicians during their campaigns and time in public office. For those in Congress, it also takes into account voting records. Crowdpac’s algorithm uses those variables to measure politicians against each other — it’s called cluster analysis.
When Reagan was a presidential nominee he was considered the most conservative in the field. But measured against other politicians today, he’s not the farthest right.
One caveat to this data: When Reagan ran for president in 1980 and 1984, political giving was much different from it is today. There weren’t super PACs or just the sheer volume of money in campaigns. So there’s simply more data to analyze for politicians today.
Still, the above graph is a fun way to illustrate where Reagan would fall along the political spectrum among today’s presidential candidates.
If CPAC goers are looking for a Reagan replica their best bet might be to listen closely to Gov. Scott Walker (Wis.), former governor Rick Perry (Tex.), Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), and, at least by this analysis, Dr. Ben Carson.
Underscoring how divided the GOP is, several potential top-tier candidates are on the far edges of the conservative continuum. Gov. Chris Christie (N.J.) and former Gov. Jeb Bush (Fla.) are far less conservative than Reagan would be today and Sens. Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Rand Paul (Ky.) are more.
When CPAC formed in 1973 it was essentially created for Reagan and conservatives like him. At CPAC in 1984, the former Rep. Mickey Edwards (R-Okla.) said, “These are the troops of the Reagan revolution.”
Conservative Republicans today don’t have one Reagan-type to coalesce around. But they long for one, which is why all the presidential hopefuls (even Christie and Bush) want face time in front of Reagan’s old foot soldiers.
Charlie Gerow, a Pennsylvania GOP consultant who has been attending CPAC since the Reagan era, said many will lay claim to Reagan’s legacy. But, while many candidates have their own strengths (Gerow’s backing dark horse Carly Fiorina), he said there’s no comparison to the Gipper.
“There was only one Ronald Reagan and the eternal quest to try and clone him retrospectively is a failed mission,” Gerow said.
At the end of each conference, the attendees vote in a presidential poll. In 1980 and 1984 they of course picked Reagan. In 2000, they voted for George W. Bush and in 2012 for Mitt Romney.
But for the last two years they voted for Rand Paul, who, according to Crowdpac calculations, is the most conservative choice.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly said CPAC started in 1976. It was 1973. Also, it incorrectly referred to Mickey Edwards as the late congressman. It should have said former.