At the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) — which draws conservative politicians, activists and constituents from across the U.S. for three days of panels and speeches — a straw poll of approximately 2,500 CPAC attendees was conducted in collaboration with the Washington Times. The straw poll shows participants’ preferences on a range of issues, from the National Security Agency’s data-collection techniques, to potential GOP presidential nominees, to the role of the U.S. in the world.
Iva Deutchman, professor of political science and resident expert on contemporary conservative U.S. politics, helps us make sense of what this means for the political outlook of the GOP, the Tea Party and the 2016 election.
While almost two-thirds of the participants in the CPAC straw poll identified as male, nearly half identified themselves in the “18-25” demographic, and almost as many as “students.” How representative is this of the voting base of the GOP? How closely can we equate CPAC attendees with the GOP base?
I have been to CPAC a number of times and all the times I’ve gone have been with HWS students. We (the students and I) have often noticed how many young people were at CPAC. And we were always surprised.
But the millennial generation is not representative of the GOP. Indeed, a lot of people think that is one of the problems Republicans have. They take a variety of positions that do not match millennial beliefs. In general, millennials tend to be libertarian in their philosophy, which means small government. Specifically, though, they are pro-choice and heavily pro-gay marriage, two positions not usually associated with the GOP. This is going to be a problem for the Republicans as millennials are clearly the future.
For second year running, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ken.) took the straw poll for potential 2016 presidential candidates, this year with 31% of the vote and followed by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). As the Christian Science Monitor reported in February, if both Paul and Cruz run in the 2016 GOP primary elections, “they’d vie for the same conservative voters,” namely those who identify with the tea party wing of the GOP. What is it about Paul and Cruz that seems to excite those voters? Where do their approaches or ideologies differ?
First of all, Rand’s dad, Ron Paul, won the straw poll for a number of years…and Ron and Rand are both libertarians (go back to the first point above). So that Rand would win is no surprise. Ted Cruz is more of a social conservative than Rand Paul is, so I would not compare the two in terms of vying for the same group of voters.
But let’s go back to Goldwater, the original Mr. Conservative (that was what he was called). He was a libertarian. He was married to a woman who was Chair of Planned Parenthood of Arizona and he arranged for his daughter, pre-1973 (before abortion was legal) to have an abortion. That was Goldwater. Reagan also signed into law liberal, pro-choice legislation in California when he was governor. And he was, of course, married and divorced before he married Nancy. Which is to say he did not live his life as a social conservative.
Social conservatives became a major bloc in the Republican Party in the 1980s. George H.W. Bush was much more of a traditional/libertarian conservative. In other words, small government means small government in all aspects of life — so it isn’t small in terms of collecting taxes but huge in terms of deciding on your sex life. W., I think, is much more socially conservative. So, I would say Rand Paul, like his daddy, is in the Goldwater wing of the party (although I am not sure of his views on abortion — his own father is pro-life, which has never made sense to me, given his other views). Cruz is closer to W., I think.
A lot can happen in two years, but do you have any predictions for the 2016 presidential election? What kinds of political strategies might we see from the GOP and conservative politicians like Paul and Cruz to rally their base and convince independents?
I think, as I suggested before, that the GOP is going to have a problem trying to keep a socially conservative religious base while at the same time trying to reach out to other groups who have not been traditional GOP voters. Remember, if you are a religious conservative what you believe is truth — it is hard to compromise. And politics, of course, is the art of compromise.