CPAC’s Curiously Skewed Poll and Other Oddities

Rand Paul now places first in the Conservative Political Action Conference's annual straw poll as much as his father did. But his father won repeatedly despite never coming close to winning the nomination. Why is this?

By Rachel Alexander Published on March 2, 2015

I attended the annual Conservative Political Action Conference this past weekend, and as usual, it ended with a much hyped but slanted presidential straw poll. Alternative conservative Rand Paul came in first place, followed by Scott Walker, then Ted Cruz, Ben Carson and Jeb Bush. Being a bit more mainstream conservative than Paul, Walker got the biggest bounce from the poll. He moved to the right during the conference, stating that he no longer supports the McCain-Kennedy path to citizenship bill.

Still, the poll is famously out of synch with eventual Republican presidential race results, for an obvious reason: CPAC’s demographics are heavily skewed toward very young people, who do not represent the spectrum of registered GOP voters.

The 18-to-25-year-old age bracket made up a disproportionate 47 percent of those who voted in the straw poll, and there were many under age 18 who also voted — not old enough to vote in real life. CPAC offers discounts and incentives to students, and consequently the conference was flooded with Millennials. This surely helps explain why only four winners of the past 20 CPAC straw polls have gone on to win the GOP nomination for president.

To those who say the support for Rand Paul among the young shows the GOP trajectory a few years out, I say not so fast. I am from Generation X and remember how noisy the Ron Paul enthusiasts were when he was at his peak. Where are they now? They’re no long the loud idealistic activists they once were. They have grown up and started families. Legalizing pot no longer seems so pressing.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I actually like Rand Paul quite a bit except on foreign policy, and think he is more principled than many of the potential GOP presidential candidates and his fellow members of Congress. However, ISIS has now become the biggest foreign policy problem facing the U.S. — not the best time to run for office as a non-interventionist.

I stopped by various parties during the convention, including one co-hosted by National Review, IJ Review and Facebook. Over 600 people attended. In contrast, the Republican Liberty Caucus party held at the same time, for Rand Paul supporters, had about 40 attendees. This puts the straw poll in perspective: Paul only won the poll because most regular conservatives split their votes among the other conservative candidates.

Still, we shouldn’t forget: the youngest voters don’t remember Ronald Reagan. Robert George of The Washington Post jarred attendees when he told them we can no longer trot out the line, “We are the party of Reagan.”

A Moment of Merriment

One humorous moment: the convention ended by announcing the straw poll results to highlight Jeb Bush’s poor placement. His fifth place win was announced first, followed by a huge celebration on stage, as all the CPAC volunteers began dancing to loud music and throwing patriotic T-shirts into the audience. Only after the merriment were the four candidates who beat him announced.

This was no doubt fueled in part by Bush busing in supporters to hear his speech and vote in the straw poll. He was booed several times in the main auditorium. He stuck to his support for Common Core and to a path to legal status for illegal immigrants. A man dressed in Revolutionary War clothing and carrying a large Tea Party flag led almost 100 people in a walkout shortly after Bush began speaking. Ned Ryun of American Majority went on to advise attendees that someone would need to bridge the gap between the grassroots and the establishment. Easier said than done.

A few surprises: Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry and Marco Rubio should have done better, though Chris Christie’s poor showing was expected — he’s far too moderate for CPAC attendees.

Odds and Ends

Surely the most unusual speaker was UKIP leader Nigel Farage. He told attendees he knew how a conservative third party could successfully challenge a longstanding two-party system, and said we need a return to Judeo-Christian values, not Sharia law.

One of the best parts of CPAC is the BlogBash party. Started by some of the biggest names in the conservative blogosphere during their early obscurity, it has become so popular that everyone but unpaid bloggers must now pay $100 or $200 extra to attend. Rick Perry presented the annual blogger award to Erick Erickson of RedState.

There were plenty of minorities in attendance and speaking. One seminar addressed the false perception that Republicans are unfriendly to minorities. Ron Christie, who is on the board of the ACU, told how left-wing Democrat Rep. Maxine Waters once called him an Uncle Tom and a sellout, since “black people don’t work for Republicans.” Apparently she thinks black people must be told how to think.

Carly Fiorina was everywhere at CPAC. Currently chair of the American Conservative Union Foundation, which puts on CPAC, she appears to be angling to run for president or at least vice president. Insiders told me the GOP is considering women more and more lately for higher office, because the left is less likely to attack women as viciously as men.

Sheriff David Clarke of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, was also everywhere at the conference, an indication he may also be considering higher office. In contrast to his tough talk towards Obama, he was very gracious and approachable in person. I predict both Clarke and Fiorina will successfully rise through the ranks to higher political office.

It’s About Networking

Ultimately, CPAC is all about the networking. Tired of having no connections, no access and feeling stalled in your career? DC insiders know it’s all about the face time. Where else can you approach the top stars in the GOP without waiting in a line or paying money? Everywhere I walked, I saw key leaders and personalities and none of them turned me down for a photo with them.

But if you feel left out, remember: many of those stars have paid a lot of money to be there. Just as the straw poll is not an accurate representation of GOP voters, neither were the other speakers and promotions. Many of them bought booths or paid for sponsorships. During one seminar on how to get yourself on TV, I was shocked to hear someone ask if onetime media appearances are paid. Not only are they unpaid, most people nowadays pay a public relations firm a lot of money to market themselves to TV programs.

Today’s CPAC is no longer the stodgy, old-fashioned convention it once was.  The Millennials are hip, plentiful and lean libertarian. The music is loud and modern and the parties are bigger than ever. It has become the number one annual conservative event in America, so large there is no hotel in D.C. that can fully accommodate everyone in one auditorium, forcing the conference to move across the Potomac River to Maryland.

CPAC may not have brought back together the old Reagan coalition of factions on the right, but it has certainly energized many within the party for 2016.

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