Saturday marked the very first contest in the 2016 Republican presidential primary. At the Gaylord National Resort and Conference Center, a hulking Las Vegas style hotel complex on the shores of the Potomac River, conservative activists voted for Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky in the CPAC straw poll. The libertarian hero narrowly edged Florida Senator Marco Rubio by a margin of 25% to 23%.
Although the CPAC straw poll has been considered an initial test of strength for prospective presidential candidates, no 2016 hopeful admitted to doing any organizing around it. Voters also had 23 candidates to choose from, ranging from Rob Portman, the Ohio senator who stunningly endorsed gay marriage on Friday to neurosurgeon Ben Carson. But while the straw poll may have been the first ballot of 2016, the entire weekend served as a political beauty pageant. Most of the potential Republican candidates for President showed up to speak to the crowd of conservative activists, and their speeches may have been more important than the non-binding vote.
The top two finishers in the straw poll, Paul and Rubio spoke back to back on Thursday and offered very different visions for the Republican Party.
Paul walked to the podium as Metallica’s Enter Sandman blared, went after the Republican establishment that long scorned his father, former Texas congressman Ron Paul. He denounced “the GOP of old [which] has grown stale and moss covered.” Instead, he urged a libertarian approach that was equally skeptical of drug laws and drone warfare as a way to reach out to “the Facebook generation.” It seemed to resonate as a cheering crowd of young people holding “Stand with Rand” signs filled the room.
In contrast, Rubio walked on stage with the British boy band One Direction playing and gave a speech harking back to George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism. The first term Florida senator didn’t hesitate to deal with social issues like gay marriage and abortion. But he spent even more time emphasizing the importance of “America’s hardworking middle class.” Rubio focused on issues like student loan reform and job training that have traditionally been associated with Democrats.
With the exception of George W. Bush, every Republican presidential nominee since Ronald Reagan has been the second place finisher in the previous GOP primary. Rick Santorum, the runner up to Mitt Romney in 2012, was at CPAC likely hoping to continue that tradition. The former Pennsylvania senator gave a stridently socially conservative speech to the crowd less than a day after his nephew passed away. Choking up at times, Santorum made a strong appeal to traditional values and condemning what he saw as the moral decline of the United States. He was the only speaker to actively engage in the culture wars decrying “the culture of titillation and violence” promoted by Hollywood and condemning those who he thought sought to make America like Europe. He ended up finishing a distant third in the straw poll.
However, Santorum may face competition from Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan. The Wisconsin congressman faced some veiled criticism at CPAC from those skeptical of a “green eyeshade conservatism” focused on Washington’s budget politics but received a positive reception for his speech Friday morning. In his address, he emphasized the need to balance the budget for moral reasons. “The crucial question isn’t how we balance the budget, it’s why we balance the budget. The budget is a means to the end. We’re not balancing a budget as an accounting exercise and make the numbers add up.”
Although Ryan finished fifth in the straw poll, he still may have been one of the most popular figures at the conference. A meet and greet opportunity for conservatives to get a picture with him Thursday night sparked a jam-packed line that snaked back and forth through hotel corridors.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, long mocked for his 2009 State of the Union response where he was compared to Kenneth the Page from 30 Rock, tried to compensate by starting his speech with a borscht belt style act where he competed with Tina Fey to try to pack in as many jokes as possible. After cracking wise about topics like Dennis Rodman’s trip to North Korea and President Obama’s golf outing with Tiger Woods, he eventually settled into giving a stridently anti-government speech. The Louisiana governor suggested the federal government would be better off with a quarter of the buildings and half the employees. He suggested devolving as much power back to the states as possible, and wanted to “get rid of incentives Washington uses to coerce our behavior” in the tax code.
However, two top 2016 contenders were excluded from CPAC but not from the straw poll. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell were pointedly not invited for their various heresies against conservatism, but their names were left on the ballot.
Although Christie has always been considered a relative moderate in the modern GOP, McDonnell was long considered a faithful movement conservative. However, he recently raised taxes in Virginia to pay for a badly needed transportation program. The result made him a bête noire at CPAC. Activists ended out leaflets attacking him, and Brent Bozell, prominent conservative and head of the Media Research Center, virtually read McDonnell out of the conservative movement, saying he wished the Virginia governor had never been elected and should “forget his national aspirations.”
This isn’t to say that no one had a kind word for them. They were both mentioned in a long list of successful Republican governors that Mitt Romney read off during his speech on Friday.
One prospective 2016 candidate, Jeb Bush was at CPAC but went out of his way to have his name removed from the straw poll ballot. The former Florida governor, gave the featured speech at CPAC’s Ronald Reagan Dinner on Friday where he exhorted the GOP to embrace a big tent conservatism, reminiscent of his brother’s compassionate conservatism.
Bush warned the crowd of right wing activists at dinner: “Way too many people believe Republicans are anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-science, anti-gay, anti-worker, and the list goes on and on and on. Many voters are simply unwilling to choose our candidates even though they share our core beliefs, because those voters feel unloved, unwanted and unwelcome in our party."
Needless to say, on a ballot of 23 candidates, there were lots of other contenders. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker gave a strong speech early Saturday morning where he boasted of his efforts to end collective bargaining for public employees in Wisconsin and emphasized the need to “empower people through the dignity of work.”
New Texas senator Ted Cruz, who gave the keynote speech wrapping up the conference, tried to cloak himself in Rand Paul’s halo. He boasted of his efforts assisting Paul’s 13 hour filibuster on drone warfare and implored the crowd to defend the Constitution. There was even a speech from Sarah Palin who made a joke about her "rack" and sipped a big gulp on stage.
There was not too much at stake for the presidential contenders. In front of such a friendly audience, it was difficult not to make a favorable impression. Even those who didn’t do well in the straw poll weren’t suffering. After all, it’s hard for nonbinding straw poll two and a half years out to do any damage. But it did allow prospective candidates to stake their claim out on turf in a Republican primary: Rand Paul as a libertarian, Marco Rubio as a George W. Bush Republican, Paul Ryan as a budget scold and Rick Santorum as a social conservative.
The activists attending CPAC left on Saturday with no clearer idea of who the next Republican presidential nominee would be than when they arrived at the conference on Thursday. They did get a much better sense of where the prospective candidates were planting their flags. After all, while the nonbinding straw poll was the first contest of the 2016 election, the addresses to the conferences were the first stump speeches.
And those were far more meaningful.