In 2010, one of the last years CPAC was held in Washington, D.C. at the Woodley Park Marriott, 2300 registrants voted in the presidential straw poll. CPAC’s registration grew, its stated reason for moving out to the Gaylord, where 3000 registrants voted in the straw poll in 2015. After spending a few Covid lockdown years in Florida, CPAC was back at the Gaylord on the Potomac Waterfront last week.
This year only 2028 people took the straw poll. This is only a proxy for registration as some people may not have voted. But it’s only two-thirds of the number who voted in 2015. There were fewer workshops and panels outside the main hall, and the main Potomac Ballroom was noticeably half empty, until Donald Trump gave the final speech on Saturday evening. Then 90 percent of the seats were full, but it wasn’t standing room only.
A reporter acquaintance asked me about the low attendance and whether I thought it was due to the "Schlapp scandal." I didn’t see this, but according to her Washington Times article CPAC chairman Schlapp was chased through the halls Thursday morning by reporters asking him about a $9 million lawsuit against him for sexual assault.
I don’t think this is why CPAC was smaller, but the conference did have a case of paranoia. The media this year was carefully curated. I was, for the first time, denied a media credential—I usually just apply as a freelancer. As usual (I’ve been going to CPAC since 2007) I’d also bought a regular ticket, and at one point security searched me out and detained me in the exhibit hall, went through my possessions, physically took off my lanyard and conference badge, because being denied a media credential this year put me on a “banned” list. Security marched me back to registration where I had to ask a registration desk troubleshooter to call her supervisor, who called the CPAC general counsel, until apologies were made, my badge was returned, and my ticket price was refunded.
CPAC is something of a mom & pop multi-national, since there are now CPAC annual conferences in a growing list of countries including Brazil, Hungary, and Japan, under husband and wife team Matt and Mercedes Schlapp. Schlapp, who has several children, is being sued by a man who was a Herschel Walker campaign staffer assigned to drive Schlapp when he spoke at last year's Walker campaign events. The anonymous accuser says an inebriated Schlapp aggressively groped him. The accuser also said that he’d reveal his identity if Schlapp denied the charges. Schlapp has denied the charges and the accuser has not given up his anonymity, leading many to think the charges are spurious and the accuser is simply seeking a settlement. Schlapp didn’t appear on stage much this year; Mercedes introduced speakers several times a day.
Most people attendees are Trump loyalists, and I imagine they discount stories about Schlapp groping a man as they would stories about Trump grabbing a woman, as mainstream media lies.
What CPAC missed this year are the throngs of college students who used to register so they could vote in the straw poll for Ron Paul (who won the 2010 poll) and for Rand Paul (who won the 2015 poll), helped out by generous subsidies for their tickets and hotel rooms by Ron Paul groups like Young Americans for Liberty and the Campaign for Liberty. Forty-seven percent of the straw poll voters in 2015 were between the ages of 18 and 25.
There were no Ron or Rand Paul-related booths, and no related speakers. There were no libertarian booths of any stripe, from the Ayn Rand Institute to Reason magazine, who’ve often been here in the past. One irony of CPAC this year was the “early voting” on the straw poll. Trump volunteers were out encouraging people to vote (all online, using the ID number or QR code on badges) well before Nikki Haley or Vivek Ramaswamy spoke.
(Leaving the hall after Ramaswamy’s speech an older man told me he liked what Ramaswamy had said, but had never heard of him before.) Daily Wire commentator Michael Knowles joked that he was the only speaker at CPAC not running for president, because he’s not yet old enough.) Schlapp reappeared in the penultimate segment before Trump’s speech, to announce the results of the straw poll. CPACers ranked their Vice Presidential choices as: Kari Lake (20 percent), Ron DeSantis (17 percent) and Nikki Haley (10 percent). For President: Trump at 62 percent (four points higher than last year’s straw poll), with DeSantis a distant second.
Another irony is that even though the libertarians weren’t present, their policies have triumphed. Many speakers opposed continuing involvement in the war in Ukraine and want Europeans to pay for NATO on their own. In the straw poll 79 percent of registrants opposed American involvement in Ukraine. Trump appointee, Kissinger staffer, and CPAC board member K.T. McFarland and others emphasized that deregulating American energy production would lower the price of fossil fuels and impoverish Russia, reducing its ability to fund wars, and making U.S. military interventions almost unnecessary.
Federalist editor Mollie Hemingway and many other speakers decried government censorship and surveillance and cooperation between the federal government and corporations to control Americans’ lives. Vivek Ramaswamy announced that his first action as president would be to abolish the Department of Education and his second to dismantle the FBI. A few people, including Ramaswamy, criticized free trade policies, but not globally or to protect American jobs, instead singling out not allowing trade and investment that enriches hostile totalitarian countries like China.
The only aspects of the war on drugs discussed were China exporting lethal formulations of fentanyl to the U.S. or criminal cartels controlling the Southern border. Seventy-four percent straw poll participants preferred that states make laws regarding abortion, and didn’t prefer a federal ban. Speakers from Tulsi Gabbard to Trump decried endless wars, profiteering warmongers, and intelligence agencies that fabricate narratives supporting war and evidence smearing those who oppose it.
Apparently, conservatives are all libertarians—or at least libertarian-leaning conservatives—for now.