CPAC—the Conservative Political Action Committee conference—is flooded with college-age attendees. Approximately half the participants are students, and dozens of campus Republican groups sent delegations. The result is an event swarming with enthusiastic and fresh-faced young activists, belying the Republican Party’s reputation as a bastion of wrinkled old men. Yet from gay rights to foreign wars, the presence of so many young people at CPAC brought to the fore the ideological debates that could divide Republicans in the future.
For many students who see themselves as embattled conservative minorities on overwhelmingly liberal campuses, CPAC is a rare opportunity to relax and be themselves, a place where the teenager in a bow tie will be accepted with open arms, where opinions aren't shouted down—and, of course, where singles can find like-minded hookups.
“The lesbians at Smith College protest better than you do!” shouted one young conservative activist.
"We're looking for boyfriends," Jamie Boccanfusso, a sophomore from UPenn, said with a giggle in the exhibit hall.
"You don't even know where to start" boasted Gerald Ratchford, a cadet from the Citadel, whose uniform made him a hit with the ladies. "Some of the girls here, it's like instantly, 'Will you marry me?'"
While being surrounded by fellow wingers is “a breath of fresh air,” as one college junior put it, the conference has also been a reminder of some of the divisions among the youngest attendees, and between younger conservatives and their elders. Attendees typically told The Daily Beast they found the atmosphere harmonious, with opposition to President Barack Obama uniting a wide swath of conservative factions. Yet with a large percentage of the younger attendees, libertarians, and Ron Paul supporters, clashes over social issues with religious conservatives, and over foreign policy with neoconservatives, have simmered in the background. The conflict boiled over publicly when Ryan Sorba, a member of California Young Americans for Freedom, condemned CPAC onstage for inviting a gay Republican group.
"The lesbians at Smith College protest better than you do!" Sorba shouted as he was booed off the stage at the student-led event.
Amber Barnett, a law student at University of St. Thomas, said afterward that she was shocked by the boos. "We need to present a unified front to the liberal media," Barnett said. "If you didn't like it, you didn't like it, but be respectful."
Brian Colby, a student at Macalaster College, said that while he personally opposes gay marriage, he was heartened by the audience's response. "I was glad he was booed off," Colby said. "We shouldn't shun anybody."
• Dispatches from CPAC• Benjamin Sarlin: Dubya’s Back!• Watch CPAC’s Most Outrageous MomentsBonnie Kristian, a recent college graduate and communications manager for CampusReform.org, told the Beast that younger conservatives tended to "have a different focus" than their older counterparts, with less attention on gay issues. Indeed, several attendees who told The Daily Beast they objected to gay marriage personally were quick to criticize anti-gay groups in CPAC's exhibit hall, which included a booth sporting "Real Men Marry Woman" bumper stickers and another devoted to keeping gays out of the military.
Kristian also said her generation's comfort with technology and social media also separated them from their parents’ brand of conservative activism. To bridge that divide, actor Stephen Baldwin hosted a parallel convention with his group XPAC, aimed at attracting young conservatives. XPAC offered multiple Xbox 360s loaded with Modern Warfare 2, a shooter set in the Middle East, as well as performances by conservative rappers and the Gregory Brothers, the group behind the viral video sensation "Auto-Tune the News."
"You see kids kicking back, eating popcorn, checking email on their Wifi with blazing speed. ... We paid attention to the small things," said Baldwin, decked out in Vans sneakers and a black shirt covered in patches.
For some blue-state conservatives who honed their political skills by continuously debating liberal peers, mingling with attendees presented unique challenges. Jesse Eiseman and Tyler Trumbach, who came from Columbia University to attend the conference, interrupted a spirited debate over the fall of the Roman Empire to complain to The Daily Beast about the anti-intellectual bent of fellow conservatives at CPAC.
"They have an opinion, but they don't give evidence to back it up, they don't use logic," Trumbach said.
Eiseman added, "In a lot of ways I feel closer to left-wing intellectuals. ... I love the populists, I agree with them on many things, but I am scared of what happens when people stop thinking."
The two quickly took to hiding their name badges showing their college in order to avoid ridicule after speakers trashed academic elites onstage. "There are a lot of anti-Ivy Leaguers around," Eiseman said.
On foreign policy, the non-interventionist Ron Paul’s youth-driven movement created a bizarre parallel universe within the conference, helping their idol win the CPAC straw poll, beating Mitt Romney. While Newt Ginrgich repeatedly bashed Democrats as soft on national security on the main stage Saturday, the Paul group Campaign for Liberty hosted an anti-war panel called, “You’ve Been Lied To: Why Real Conservatives Are Against the War on Terror.” It filled a smaller ballroom to maximum capacity with a cheering, overwhelmingly young audience.
For all the differences between them, however, most attendees said they felt little tension with their fellow conservatives on a personal level.
“We respect each other's viewpoints,” Travis Korson, a George Washington University student, said. “You just don't talk about things you disagree [about].”
Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.