CPAC Changes


For the second consecutive year, Rep. Ron Paul won the presidential straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). This may seem like a minor trend; but, in fact, there are a lot of changes afoot at CPAC — which was an important staging area for Ronald Reagan’s political ascendancy in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Does this mean that the elder Paul is the next Reagan? Probably not. But the changes at CPAC are worth a look.

As usual, pundits in the establishment media focused on some clownish details (Donald Trump’s appearance and some headline-seeking quotes from a couple of collegiate anarchists in attendance) and pasted these to some lazy generalizations about the “stubborn libertarian streak” within the Right. And, as usual, these lazy regurgitations of conventional wisdom missed the more interesting story.

The Campaign for Liberty (CforL) — the political action organization born from the pieces of Rep. Paul’s last presidential campaign — has made a concerted effort to influence CPAC. CforL has developed a partnership agreement with CPAC’s owners, whereby CforL can offer its members discounted tickets to the Conference. This arrangement has worked for CPAC; it’s accounted for between a third and a quarter of all recent attendees.

The arrangement has also helped CPAC achieve some other goals. Since CforL focuses its membership recruitment efforts on people under 25, the deal has broughtdown the median age of the conference crowd. This youth movement is a good thing for CPAC, which could use the change. On this point, I can offer a bit of color to illustrate. About five years ago, a twenty-something Silver Lake Publishing author went to CPAC to promote his book. Overall, the reception was chilly; and, in one panel discussion, he was on the receiving end of some barbs from the execrable Ann Coulter — who dismissed libertarians as “hippies who just want to smoke pot all day.” Her line got a lot of applause from the sensibly-shod audience.

The author was chagrined. Afterward, on the phone, he asked me: “Do these people realize that Reagan was a lifelong reader of The Freeman?”

Anyway, those sensible shoes may be shuffling elsewhere. This year’s CPAC was boycotted by several groups — including the Heritage Foundation, the Family Research Council, the American Family Association — who objected to the presence of GOProud (a gay conservative group) and the growing ranks of Paul supporters. Some of the boycotting groups have announced plans to launch a “family values” conference to rival CPAC.

So be it. Maybe CPAC will become a more open-minded place, with people who remember that Reagan built his political identity on libertarian ideals.

Finally, the arrangement between CPAC and CforL also explains — almost precisely — Ron Paul’s straw poll victory. He was the first choice of 30% of the Conference attendees; and, since CforL accounted for between a third and a quarter of the people in the halls, it’s safe to assume those people danced with the one who brought them.

Second place went to Mitt Romney (in its CPAC coverage, Fox News led with this point and barely mentioned Paul). Third place was a tie between former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson and current New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. This is a hopeful sign for those libertarians who see Johnson as a better media presence — and, therefore, a stronger prospect in a national campaign — than Rep. Paul. Other popular names (including Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee, both of whom honored the “family values” boycott) trailed far behind.

Many observers point out, correctly, that presidential straw polls such as CPAC’s get some attention yet rarely predict the nominee accurately. I’m less interested in presidential horse race handicapping than in the ideas being discussed at conferences like CPAC. There was talk in the halls this year about taxes as the worst form of statist coercion.

I’m not sure that’s true. War is worse than taxes. But I’m glad the CPAC attendees were having that discussion — instead of nodding and clapping to the halfwit populism of Mike Huckabee or the empty screeching of Ann Coulter.

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Andy Currie

Call me a Debbie Downer, but I can't believe that the public is going to shift in the direction of libertarianism and smaller government, no matter how well infiltrated institutions like CPAC are. The whole system in place today is built to favor statists. The Tea Party speaks with a libertarian tone but that counts for nothing when they take office. Reagan himself was anything but a libertarian in office, despite his association with Goldwater.

I used to be of the opinion that for libertarians to suceed they would have to do what the Christian right did: take over the Republican Party. But in order to do so, the religious right had to embrace the statism and warfarism of the neoconservatives. For libertarians, that is a complete betrayal of principle by definition. Reagan did it and lost what credibility he had with libertarians.

As for Ron Paul, he makes a great representative, where he can play the role of insurgent and contrarian. But were he to actually take the Oval Office, he would immediately be faced with having to wield power that the chief executive should not have in the first place. The system is designed for statists; it would be like asking a nun to take a job running a brothel.


Thanks for letting us know about the Heritage Foundation's decision to boycott the meeting. I'm astounded (but I apparently still have a lot to learn about politics). Jane S. Shaw.

Rick Sincere

In addition to coming in with 6 percent of the most widely reported question in the CPAC straw poll for a third-place tie with Chris Christie, Governor Gary Johnson won the "second choice" CPAC straw poll question with 15 percent.

If you add up the totals for the "liberty candidates" -- Paul and Johnson -- 36 percent named them as their first choice and 23 percent named them as their second choice. (It's not possible to determine, from the published data, how many of Paul's voters made Johnson their second choice and vice versa.)

Perhaps more tellingly, 84 percent of those taking the CPAC straw poll answered "My most important goal is to promote individual freedom by reducing the size and scope of government and its intrusion into the lives of its citizens."

"Traditional values" got 9 percent and national security got 6 percent.

For what it's worth, Gary Johnson placed a strong first in a Republican Liberty Caucus straw poll held the same weekend as CPAC, with Ron Paul a distant second and Newt Gingrich an even more distant third.

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