CPAC: Winners, losers, or just a debate?

Who were the winners and losers at CPAC? You’ll see a lot of that kind of commentary in the media after the end of the conference, but to a large extent it misses the point — especially when it’s based on the straw poll that takes place during CPAC. James Hohmann makes that mistake at Politico in an otherwise interesting analysis, but he’s hardly alone:

Rand Paul romped, Ted Cruz flopped. Chris Christie made nice with the right and Marco Rubio learned that talking up foreign interventionism is about the last way to win over the crowd.

So went CPAC 2014.

Paul showed again that the conference – filled with young, libertarian leaning Republicans – is his home field and then some. The Kentucky senator won the conference straw poll with 31 percent, nearly tripling the vote count for Cruz, the second place finisher. Rubio finished seventh, after almost beating Paul in the CPAC straw poll a year ago.

Take the results for what they are; the crowd here is a slice of the GOP base, not representative of it. But it does offer one indication of who’s exciting conservatives as 2016 speculation heats up.

Take the results for what they are … which is nothing much. The straw poll is fun for attendees, a tool for political organizers, and catnip for journalists. The last such poll not to be won by someone named Paul or Romney was 2005, when George Allen won it. And yet the media still eats up these straw polls as if they’re meaningful in either a predictive or temperature-taking way.

One of the more understandable if annoying impulses of covering such a wide-ranging conference is the need to build an overarching narrative of an event designed to frame debates over policy and politics. I discussed this with a journalist assigned to CPAC, who joked that it made it easier to justify the not-insignificant expense of covering it. Having gone on the road to cover events myself, I understand that impulse, but for political conferences that cover such a broad spectrum of politics, it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees. Yes, there’s debate at CPAC, but that doesn’t mean that conservatives are “fractured” (as one newspaper headline put it), or at least not really evidence of such a fracture; it’s just evidence that the CPAC structure works. No one who has ever attended a CPAC expects to hear three days of lockstep thought on politics, nor would it get the kind of attendance it does if that’s all CPAC offered.

On the last day of the conference, I spoke with American Conservative Union chair Al Cardenas about the composition of CPAC as well as its purpose. I asked Cardenas specifically about the lack of a pro-life panel at CPAC, as well as the addition of a panel debate on marijuana legalization. Cardenas replied that we have already won the debate on the right on pro-life cause, and we need to set the debate on topics that are still in flux:

We also spoke about the need to expand American conservative values abroad. Cardenas agreed, and later thanked me for bringing up the topic. We tend to focus mostly on pushing those values here at home, and that’s tough enough, but we need to make the case on the international stage, too. Perhaps that’s even more important when the current US government is so hostile to those values.

No one will pack up their tents based on the CPAC straw poll or the relative applause metering of the speeches, and no one will unfurl their banners on that basis, either. There were no “losers” at CPAC, but there was three days of very intense debate over a wide range of issues, plus opportunities to hear from movement leaders of the past, present, and future. The winners were the attendees.

Addendum: I still have more CPAC videos and will post them over the next couple of days.