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Why the CPAC snub of Chris Christie means less than you think

It's easy to conclude that Chris Christie's snubbing for a speaking slot at the CPAC gathering next month in Washington is a sign of deep unrest aimed at the New Jersey governor from within the ranks of conservatives.

Chris Christie, left, and President Obama. AFP/Getty photo Chris Christie, left, and President Obama.  AFP/Getty photo

But, that's to assume that is to take CPAC as synonymous with the broader conservative movement. Which, it isn't.

"CPAC is an important grassroots conclave but is in no way an accurate sample of the entire Republican primary voter universe," said Mike Murphy, a leading Republican strategist.

There's no question that CPAC is one of the most high-profile annual gatherings of conservatives in the country.  The list of speakers at this year's event includes the likes of heavy hitters like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.

And, given the flood of media at CPAC, a good speech can help with positive buzz around a politician while a bad speech can put something of a dent in a pol's reputation.  Rubio's speech at the 2010 CPAC gathering is a perfect example of the impact CPAC can have; it was the first time most national reporters had seen him in person and his solid performance affirmed that he was a comer on the national stage.

(Sidebar: CPAC has two big things going for it when it comes to garnering lots of press attention. Number one, it's in DC. Number two, you can see lots of politicians in a short time. It's like a recruiting event in sports.)

That said, it's important to put CPAC in the proper context of the entire GOP universe.   The attendees tend to be on the younger and more libertarian end of the party. (That's why Texas Rep. Ron Paul won the CPAC straw polls in 2010 and 2011.) It tends to favor the talk-radio set of the GOP while viewing the likes of Mitt Romney or John McCain -- the party's last two presidential nominees -- with skepticism.

"You've got old-school social conservatives who have an uncomfortable alliance with some of the Ron Paul-aligned 'liberty' movement activists," explained Dave Kochel, an Iowa-based Republican strategist who oversaw Mitt Romney's presidential campaign in the state in 2012, of the CPAC crowd. "You've still got remnants of the isolationist Buchanan worldview, co-habitating with neo-conservatives. It's a pretty broad constellation of activists of all stripes, but it isn't the entire party or the entire conservative movement."

Added Curt Anderson, a prominent Republican media consultant: "CPAC is a great thing, but it is not a proportional reflection of conservatism today.  It is skewed to Paulites and DC-based groups."

Given that reality, there may well be more smoke than fire surrounding the snubbing of Christie. That's not to say that Christie might not have some issues with conservatives if he runs for president in 2016; there are those who believe his embrace of President Obama during Hurricane Sandy helped seal the election for the Democratic incumbent and who pledge not to forget that fact.

"It's not the final word [but] it's a shot across the bow of the USS Christie '16," said Dave Carney, a Republican consultant based in New Hampshire.

Still, to assume not being invited to CPAC means Christie is a conservative pariah ignores political reality in his state and, his allies argue, his record as governor.

"I think it is surprising and unnecessarily exclusionary," said one GOP strategist granted anonymity to speak candidly about the matter. "He's pro-life, pro-marriage, for lower taxes, etc.  Is that not a conservative?"

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.

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