Does CPAC Even Matter Anymore?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, senior elections analyst): Last weekend, conservative activists and media members alike descended on Washington, D.C., for the Conservative Political Action Conference. But all is not well in CPAC-land. Matt Schlapp, the conference’s longtime chair, is facing allegations of groping and a toxic management style. Several big names in the GOP, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, did not attend this year’s event. And social media was full of reports that many ballrooms over the weekend were only half-full. 

So my question for this week’s chat is simple: Should we even care about CPAC anymore? What was its value, and is there any of it left?

Monica Potts (Monica Potts, senior politics reporter): I think in the past it was a way for a lot of political journalists, often based in D.C., to see American conservatives they might not normally come into contact with and learn what they were thinking, what they wanted and how they influenced the Republican Party. To be honest, I think the press always kind of overstated its importance; it was, just like any political conference, a chance for like-minded people to gather and set an agenda for themselves. But I think those days are gone, both because the conference itself doesn’t seem to be as important to the people who once attended it and because I’m not convinced reporters need that window any more.

kaleigh (Kaleigh Rogers, technology and politics reporter): We can’t completely disregard CPAC. It still provides a bit of a periscope into what is firing up the party’s base. But it has come a long way from its roots and no longer really provides much of a forum for debating conservative ideas. Instead, it has turned into a pageant for the party’s most Trumpy and bombastic figures to regurgitate culture war slogans and create soundbites for right-wing media. I think that’s a loss for Republicans.

nrakich: Yeah, when CPAC was first founded in 1974, it really seemed like a clearinghouse for conservative thought. Ronald Reagan spoke at that first conference, years before he was president. Later on, it also provided a window into some of the non-elite strains of conservatism, like Ron Paul-style libertarianism. But now, it seems like the only strain of conservatism that is welcome is Trumpism. Some of the main speakers this year were Donald Trump Jr., Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and, of course, the former president himself. Meanwhile, when former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley (who is challenging Trump for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination) spoke, she was greeted by a crowd cheering Trump’s name

kaleigh: Not to mention Mike Lindell, the CEO of MyPillow who has been at the forefront of spreading the false theory of a stolen 2020 election and is being sued by Dominion — the maker of voting machines used in many parts of the country — for defamation to the tune of $1.3 billion. And Kari Lake, who lost her campaign for governor of Arizona last year after running a campaign largely rooted in election fraud conspiracy theories. She still hasn’t conceded. It’s a far cry from the likes of Reagan (even Reagans agree). 

Monica Potts: I think the fact that some Trump challengers, like DeSantis, skipped the event shows that it’s not as important as it once was. If it’s just a venue for one candidate and his supporters, then that’s a different kind of event than a “Woodstock for conservatives” — one that is not as likely to serve the goals of the party as a whole.

kaleigh: Which is kind of sad, honestly. (Sad!) Al Cardenas, the former head of the American Conservative Union, told The New York Times: “The disappointment to me about CPAC has been so grand that I’ve just buried it.” 

nrakich: Yeah, that’s a great point, Monica. And DeSantis isn’t even an anti-Trump politician! He is a die-hard conservative, and he shares Trump’s fondness for culture-war issues. On paper, CPAC would be his kind of crowd … except because it’s a crowd so loyal to one person, and DeSantis is challenging that person’s supremacy within the party, he probably knew he would get a hostile reception.

Monica Potts: Yeah, and it’s so loyal to one person that even the speakers there — very conservative former officials in the Trump administration! — made only the gentlest of allusions to criticism of Trump. According to Politico, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — reportedly considering a presidential run of his own — said: “We can’t become the left, following celebrity leaders with their own brand of identity politics, those with fragile egos who refuse to acknowledge reality.” It was such a gentle jab, obviously aimed at Trump. But I think it shows the fine line politicians are trying to walk: It was a Trump crowd and Trump is still the leader of the Republican Party, but other Republicans haven’t quite found a way to deal with that.

nrakich: Yeah, it was interesting — you saw actual and potential 2024 candidates take two very distinct approaches to CPAC. On one hand, Pompeo and Haley gave speeches at the event that gently criticized Trump and made a case for their brand of conservatism. On the other, DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence didn’t even show, presumably because they figured it was a lost cause. Which approach do you guys think was wiser?

kaleigh: Haley and Pompeo were still treating CPAC like the old CPAC, where candidates could come make a name for themselves. They were swimming against the current this year and that won’t do them any favors. Pence and DeSantis (as well as Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem) took the smarter tack by not showing up.

Monica Potts: Yes, I agree with Kaleigh. To the extent that any candidacies can take off, it won’t be at CPAC.

nrakich: But is there still a strain of conservatism that isn’t represented at CPAC? Doesn’t the path to the GOP nomination run through Trumpism now?

Although I don’t think the two were related, it did feel fitting that former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced the same weekend as CPAC that he wouldn’t be running for president. Hogan has been one of the few voices in the GOP who has explicitly argued for moving on from Trump, and it seems like he decided not to run because there just wasn’t a path for him to win.

kaleigh: But if you’re running for president against Trump, how exactly do you expect to win over Trump voters from the man himself? These challengers have got to be hoping there’s another path, even if it’s wishful thinking.

Monica Potts: I also wonder if they feel it’s a matter of just not antagonizing Trump? Find a way of embracing his fans and the ideas and ideologies that motivate them without seeming to go after Trump directly. But in general I do agree that Trumpism is the core of the party now. DeSantis and most other contenders aren’t really going to challenge anything that Trump brought to or highlighted within the party; they are just going to try to make the case that they are the best avatars for it post-2020.

nrakich: Yeah, good point, Monica. And a lot of Republicans might be receptive to that “Trumpism minus Trump” — they’re just probably not the Republicans in attendance at CPAC.

You can see that plainly in the infamous CPAC straw poll. Among CPAC attendees, 62 percent said they wanted Trump to be the Republican presidential candidate in 2024; only 20 percent said they wanted DeSantis. (No other candidate got more than 5 percent.) But that’s pretty different from what actual polls of the GOP electorate say. According to an average of recent national primary polls, Trump is at only 47 percent support, and DeSantis is at 27 percent. 

In other words, here is actual empirical proof that CPAC is not representative of the Republican Party as a whole. 

kaleigh: Has the straw poll ever been that representative of the Republican Party as a whole, though? It can sometimes provide useful clues about the far right, as you mentioned at the beginning — Paul, for example, won the straw poll in 2010. Of course, he did not go on to become the 2012 party nominee, but his win was later interpreted as a portent of the tea party and the “red wave” in the 2010 midterms. 

nrakich: No, it’s always been bad! In CPAC’s nearly 50-year history, the CPAC straw poll (which is not a scientific poll and probably shouldn’t even be called a “poll”) has correctly picked the next GOP presidential nominee just six times. And five of those times, it was a gimme: Either there was an incumbent Republican president running for reelection (1984, 2019) or CPAC was taking place during a contested presidential primary season (1980, 2000, 2012), so it was clearer than usual who was going to win. 

That six times is almost as many as the number of times Paul or his son, Sen. Rand Paul, has won the CPAC straw poll (five). And I’m still waiting for their inaugurations.

kaleigh: It’s also worth mentioning that Vivek Ramaswamy — an anti-woke tech entrepreneur and a longshot 2024 candidate for president — claims he was told he could pay his way to better straw poll showings, and CPAC didn’t exactly refute the idea. It’s just further evidence that this is not exactly the most scientific poll.  

Monica Potts: Right! And this year, it wasn’t really a surprise that the far right still likes Trump. Nothing that happened at CPAC was useful or telling, which may have been why it was such a lackluster event.

nrakich: And that raises a question that’s a good note to end on: Is CPAC dead now? Or is it just in a lull and will rise from the ashes again?

kaleigh: You know, it’s hard to say. CPAC has gone through different iterations over the years, but it was started in the ’70s. This isn’t some centuries-old political institution. Maybe it will transform again post-2024, or maybe something new will come to take its place.

Monica Potts: Yes, I agree. If it dies then something new will take its place.

nrakich: I’m just sitting here imagining CPAC regenerating like the Doctor in “Doctor Who.” First there was Reagan, then there was Paul, then there was Trump … who’s next?

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