The annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) gathering opens today. There will be a straw poll on Saturday, as there is every year. And like every year the media will focus almost exclusively on that and attribute great significance to the result. And like every year it will be indicative of nothing much at all.
Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind about CPAC is that the attendees are not ideologically or demographically representative of the country, the 2014 or 2016 electorate, the GOP or the GOP primary electorate. The attendees are overwhelmingly male, young and doctrinaire conservatives or libertarians. Last year, among those who cast ballots in the straw poll, three-quarters were 40 or younger, with 52 percent between 18 and 25. Two-thirds of the attendees were male.
Many of the young men who make up the audience are, therefore, not terribly experienced political consumers, or frankly experienced in family life, business or other endeavors. Most will have no personal recollection of Ronald Reagan, for example, and no direct knowledge of any presidency prior to Bush 43. What they lack in detailed policy sophistication and historical recollection they make up for in certainty. These are conviction conservatives who have little patience for arguments about electability, compromise or good governance.
The gathering is a rather small by political standards. AIPAC for example drew 14,000 this year; CPAC is likely to draw far fewer. Its significance is greatly exaggerated by conservative supporters who want it to be regarded as terribly important and liberals who want to use it to tar the entire GOP as extremists.
Rather than see CPAC as a bellwether of the GOP, it is more useful to look at it as an opportunity to see how speakers’ performance style and ideas have evolved. Last year for example, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s speech drew raves from the crowd, somewhat dampening the impression that he is boring and/or lacking the ability to juice up the base. This year we will get the chance to see how New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie connects with a crowd and to what degree he is still on defense over the bridge scandal. A source close to the governor tells me he will try to burnish his image as a “no-nonsense executive with a record of getting things done in a blue state” in contrast to the mess inside the Beltway. Christie is also going to be pushing back against the rap that he’s not conservative enough. He’ll stress — as a group of conservative reformers in D.C. have done — the importance of being for things, not against things and the danger of getting caught up in procedural fights the party can’t win. Look for him to buy into conservatives’ antipathy toward the MSM, urging the attendees not to let the media define or pick their candidates.
Now CPAC is not an event that tells us who will run or win the nomination. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) usually didn’t attend. For a number of years Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) was the winner, but never managed to win a primary. This year Walker and many other governors are tied up at home and won’t attend. It’s also a place where candidates who eventually drop out early come to placate supporters (e.g. Govs. Haley Barbour and Mitch Daniels). It then would be wildly inaccurate to call it some kind of pre-2016 primary.
Finally, CPAC since the end of the Cold War has been light on foreign policy. That in part has been driven by the organizers who have downplayed the issue and in part by the Paulite attendees who have brought libertarian fervor and disdain for internationalism with them. This year, with the president under attack for mismanagement and weakness in foreign affairs, that may change. Moreover, former ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton will be speaking, an opportunity to urge the attendees toward a more internationalist foreign policy.