Thursday, March 5, 2015

50 Shades of CPAC

50 Shades of CPAC

We’re back! For a variety of personal and professional reasons, the two primary contributors to this blog have been on something of a hiatus since last summer. Speaking for myself, I’ve been as busy as I’ve ever been in my professional life trying to make demonstrable progress on four working papers under a 3-3 teaching load. There are times I truly envy my friends in the private sector who only have to work 40-50 hours over a five day work week…

In an attempt to hit the ground running, I’d thought I’d elaborate a bit upon John Sides’ take on this go around of the annual CPAC conference. In perhaps what is the best commentary I’ve seen on the event yet, @monkeycageblog tweeted out this gem:


Let me preface the discussion with this: within my short life as a political scientist, I’ve seen clear changes, good progress really, in how the media covers the invisible primary. A decade or so ago, if the words “invisible” and “primary” happened to collide together in the same sentence, your average journalist, perhaps political scientist even, wouldn’t have had the foggiest idea of what it was referring to. Compare that to the last couple of presidential election cycles where reporters have routinely begun to refer to the process and report on it in a much more informed fashion. This is clearly a case where political science’s engagement with journalists has had a positive impact on popular media coverage. Despite this wide recognition of the importance of the invisible primary in steering the parties towards nominees on the part of a growing number of journalists, the media tends to focus on invisible primary events that are most conspicuous. And in this instance, it means focusing in on the wrong place.

The problem with the CPAC conference is that this particular piece of low hanging fruit is probably the least useful in getting a grasp on which candidates are in doing best in the ongoing deliberations amongst policy activists within the Republican party network. The history of success at CPAC is far from perfect in predicting the eventual nomination. Let’s face it, the comments of a few fringe candidates make for interesting news items, despite the fact that they test my faith in democracy in general and more narrowly make me wonder how I ever had sympathies with this particular crowd in years past (yes, it can be painful, hence the title). Couple that with the fact that the straw poll gives a nice quantifiable capstone to the event, you can see why journalists pay it a great deal of attention. However, CPAC is at best a snapshot of the opinions of a few of the “fringier” factions within the party. Libertarian-ish types, check; Populist Tea Party-ish types, check; a good showing of Republican office holders, [crickets].


We know from experience, that the support of members of congress, governors, and other elected office holders is absolutely key in winning the invisible primary because of the organizational resources that they bring with them and the cues they give to others in the party. Voters do indeed take heed to the opinions of the "elite". When the key party actors aren’t present in force for the conversation taking place at CPAC, whatever visible cues we get from conference will be a mighty incomplete picture of the party wide deliberation. 

So props Senator Rand Paul for his continued sweep of this series. And, a shout out to Scott Walker for nearly pulling off a dark horse win. But when you’re a dark horse behind Rand Paul, from a crowd that barely resembles the key constituents of the Republican party network, neither of them, nor Republicans, nor the general public, should be taking any of these results to the bank. I dare say we should stick with Prof. Sides, and look elsewhere for clues as to who's really cleaning up in the invisible primary.

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