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. The reason the poll is not reflective of the most popular candidate among GOP faithful is simple: CPAC's demographics are heavily skewed toward very young people, who do not represent the actual 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. In reality, 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 young people supporting Rand Paul are emblematic of where the GOP is headed in a few years, I say not so fast. I am from Generation X, and remember how noisy the Ron Paul supporters of my generation were a few years back when he was at the height of his influence. Where are they now? They have grown up, started families, incomes and taxes and subsided into reality. They are no longer the loud, idealistic grassroots activists they used to be. Advocating for legalizing pot is no longer so pressing.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I actually like Rand Paul quite a bit except on foreign policy, and think he has more principles than many of the potential GOP presidential candidates and his fellow members of Congress. However, ISIS has now become the biggest political problem facing the U.S., a bad time to run for office with a non-interventionist foreign policy.
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 would seem to contradict the straw poll, and puts things into perspective: Paul only won the poll because the vast majority of regular conservatives can't make up their minds between a long list of candidates, splitting their votes in many ways.
There is one fact that cannot be ignored about the younger generation, however. They 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.”
Humorously, the convention ended by announcing the straw poll results in such a way that Jeb Bush looked really bad. His fifth place win was announced first. Immediately afterwards, there was a huge celebration on stage, as all the CPAC volunteers appeared on stage and began dancing and throwing out patriotic T-shirts into the audience as loud music played. This accurately reflected the mood during the convention, which soured even worse when Bush bused in supporters for his speech and to vote in the straw poll. He was booed several times in the main auditorium, since many in the grassroots view him as the establishment. During his appearance, he refused to back down on his support for Common Core and a path to legal status for illegal immigrants, irking some conservatives. 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. Since establishment money usually decides who ultimately gets the nomination, Ned Ryun of American Majority wisely told attendees that someone will need to bridge the gap between the grassroots and the establishment.
Although the CPAC poll was skewed, it does give candidates momentum. Being a bit more mainstream conservative than Rand Paul, Scott Walker got the biggest bounce from the poll. He moved to the right during the conference, stating his views on illegal immigration have changed and he no longer supports the McCain-Kennedy path to citizenship bill.
Some of the potential presidential candidates who did not make the top five were a bit surprising. Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry and Marco Rubio should have done better. Others like Chris Christie doing poorly was expected; he is far too moderate for CPAC attendees.
One of the best parts of CPAC is the BlogBash party. Started by some of the biggest names in the conservative blogosphere back when hardly anyone knew who they were, 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.
One of the most unusual speakers was UKIP leader Nigel Farage. He told attendees he knew how a conservative third party can successfully challenge a longstanding two-party system, and said we need a return to Judeo-Christian values, not Sharia law.
There were plenty of minorities in attendance and speaking. One seminar addressed the false perception that Republicans are are unfriendly to minorities. Ron Christie, who is on the board of the ACU, told how left-wing Democrat Rep. Maxine Waters once told him he was 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 herself 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.
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. Even then, if you still find yourself not getting anywhere, remember, many of those stars have paid a lot of money to be there. Just like 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, but 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 of 15 years ago. 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. Ignore it at your peril.