CPAC 2017: Where Were All the Conservatives?

Conference marked by eerily low attendance and enthusiasm

President Donald Trump walks on stage to address CPAC on February 24, 2017.

President Donald Trump walks on stage to address CPAC on February 24, 2017. Alex Wong/Getty Images

I first attended the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in 2009—the first one after President Obama assumed office. It was held in downtown D.C., and I remember a long registration line and even longer waits for Ann Coulter and Newt Gingrich book signings (conversely, there was no line to meet Joe the Plumber, who was hawking his own book that year).

Flash forward to my next CPAC in 2012, when I was blogging for Heritage Action, the lobbying arm of the Heritage Foundation. Again, there were long lines to get in—even for media—and the rooms were packed for nearly every speech. Big names filled up the time slots, and it was the year we all learned the name Ted Cruz (at CPAC, at least).

I’ve attended every year since, and every year, even after it moved to the Gaylord in National Harbor, Maryland, there were long lines and crowded walk ways. Last year, I waited half an hour in the media registration line to pick up my credentials (boo hoo, I know). On the day Ben Carson spoke, the Secret Service delayed entrance times to a reported two hours.

I was a little late that day and accidentally waited in the general admission entrance line, which stretched out of the main conference area, into an atrium, and around the inside of a ballroom. The line may have been a good thousand feet long when I was standing it it. I was eventually saved when I was told there was a separate, shorter media line, and I still grumbled that I had to wait 10 minutes to get through that (this is one reason why you hate the media).

This year I decided to pick up my credentials on Wednesday night and prepared to chuckle at all the media suckers who waited until Thursday to pick up theirs. President Donald Trump was speaking this year, and Republicans finally had control of the White House, the Senate and the House. I assumed it would be a mad house unlike anything else I had seen.

I was wrong.

I walked past the media line Thursday morning, and it was nearly empty. The walkways were clear, and hardly any of the big names of the past were on the agenda. It looked like there were almost as many members of the media as there were general attendees.

On Friday, we were directed away from the normal escalator that took us up to the conference and told to use a different route because there was another conference going on. Previously, there have been other conferences during during CPAC, but never so close as to encroach on its space.

The exhibit hall, which is normally filled more than half way with booths from various right-leaning causes and websites, was maybe 30 percent full.

The American Conservative Union hasn’t released numbers yet, so I can’t conclusively say attendance was down, but it sure felt like it. It was unusually warm at National Harbor this year, but most idle small talk was consumed by discussions about why the conference felt dead.

Through my conversations with friends and other attendees, I’ve come up with a few theories.

One could say Trump divided the conservative base, which may have caused problems. Sen. Rand Paul usually wins the CPAC poll asking who attendees would want as president, and he didn’t speak this year, so maybe his supporters largely stayed home.

Prior to CPAC, some pro-Trump Republicans insisted the conference would be full of anti-Trump Republicans, even though Reince Priebus, Steve Bannon and other Trump supporters spoke. Some anti-Trump Republicans suggested the conference would be a Trump love fest. Perhaps both groups stayed home to avoid the other.

In the past, many big-name conservatives attended to increase their profile and support base ahead of a presidential run. Pretty much all of those stars ran for office last year (some failed spectacularly). With them absent and Trump almost guaranteed to run for a second term, it’s incredibly premature to consider who might be the next presidential nominee. That also sucks a lot of fun out of the room.

However, the theory I agree with the most was posited by libertarian IJ Review Editor Michelle Ray.

“With the GOP in control of the House, Senate and White House… along with the majority of state governments, it seems like spending money to attend what amounts to a cheerleading convention just wasn’t a priority this year,” Ray told me.

In previous years, Republicans gathered to rail against Obama with like-minded individuals, but this year they’re in control. CPAC was fun and energized in those days, but with at least some Republican policies being accepted by the new administration, there’s not much to yell about.

I wish there had been more discussions about holding Trump accountable to conservative principles, but he’s only been in office for one month, so maybe people are holding back for now.

I’m not saying no one went to CPAC. The most largely attended speech of the weekend had to be Trump’s. The hall was packed when he spoke. It was largely full when Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Cruz spoke as well. I’m just saying it was a lot duller than in previous years, but maybe I’ve just been in D.C. for too long and have grown tired of such conferences.

So, I did what any good D.C. journalist would do at CPAC: I drank.

CPAC 2017: Where Were All the Conservatives?