CPAC is a big conference and there is always a lot to take in. One part political convention, one part marketplace, it is where the conservative base and the establishment mix together to give an (imperfect) sense of what the movement is thinking.
So here are some of my own insights and notes from what some have dubbed "conservative Woodstock".
1. Conservatives really hate "The View".
Conservatives believe that they are the true mainstream of America's culture and that their views are persecuted by powerful cultural elites. When this idea gets expressed at CPAC, the experience is truly bizarre. The best example of this was a panel that was set up to be a conservative answer to "The View".
"The View" is, of course, the popular ABC talk show where five women sit around a table and talk about the news and culture. It runs in the middle of the day and gets very high ratings from the female demographic. I don't think most people see the show as carrying water for any political agenda, it has interviews with movie starts, discussions about the news, and celebrity gossip. It's all very non-offensive.
Unless you are at CPAC. Because at CPAC, "The View" is the embodiment of all that is wrong with modern feminism and liberalism.
The panel was called "The 'Right' View". It was moderated by Marji Ross of Regnery Publishing and the Clare Booth Isntitute. Ross would show a short 15 or 20 second clip from "The View" highlighting something she found objectionable. After the clip, her four female co-panelists would commend her for having the courage to set her DVR to record the show. Then they would talk about what they found objectionable.
Joy Behar interviewing Gloria Steinam? Objectionable because it glosses over how terrible radical feminism was in the 1970's. Having the women of "The View" mocking Mitt Romney's comment that he doesn't care about the "Very Poor"? Objectionable because the panelists on "The View" are wealthy anyway and have no right to complain. Barbara Walters discussing the services provided by Planned Parenthood? Objectionable because, well, it's Planned Parenthood. That name is enough to generate automatic audience boos.
This was a revealing panel; conservatives think the culture war needs to be fought over daytime television and that the front lines are anodyne talk shows. Even if you are pro-life, and believe that stronger marriages can reduce poverty, do you really want to define yourself as someone who is indignant about the popularity of "The View"?
2. A homogenous convention.
While at CPAC, I caught up with a journalist friend who is female and not Caucasian. She told me that she felt like she was in the clear minority while on the convention floor. It is not surprising that CPAC is an overwhelmingly white conference, but the lack of Ron Paul's presence this year probably amplified that.
To be fair, the conference is not just attended by old white men. The CPAC straw poll said that the male-female balance was about 60-40, and there is always a strong showing of college students. But this was still a largely white crowd.
Past CPACs have never been a mixing bowl of diversity, but whatever else you can say about him, Ron Paul was more likely to bring people to the conference who had Rastafarian dreadlocks and who wore sweatshirts instead of suit jackets. They may have all been sold on the gold standard, but they were also less likely to be members of the College Republicans.
3. CPAC attendees love the GOP in Congress.
The CPAC straw poll doesn't only ask for Presidential and Vice Presidential picks, it also asks how poll-takers view Republicans in Congress. This year, the CPAC conference straw poll was also coupled with a national poll of conservatives, and this revealed a big divide between conservatives who were at CPAC and those who were not.
The poll asked conservatives if they approved or disapproved of the GOP in Congress. Among CPAC attendees, a 70% approval rating. Among conservatives not at the conference: only 48% approved.
This was a stunning disconnect. The activists at CPAC are in love with the GOP Congress, but outside of the hotel, even conservatives are starting to have doubts. It isn't surprising that conservatives in the country at large are not completely sold on the GOP Congress, its legislative achievements are paltry and it nearly sent the country into a default with the debt crisis. The fact that the activists within the CPAC hall aren't letting any of that register shows just how hermetically sealed CPAC is from the wider country.