(National Harbor, MD) — Kentucky Senator Rand Paul won the CPAC Presidential Straw Poll for the second year in a row. The support he received from 31% of voters was almost three times the support of his nearest rival, Texas Senator Ted Cruz. The more surprising news, however, is the steep drop in the number of CPAC attendees participating in the straw poll. The number of ballots cast has dropped more than 34% since 2011, when the GOP had just swept the 2010 mid-term elections.
A total of 2,459 ballots were cast in the 2014 CPAC straw poll. This vote is down 16% since just last year. CPAC last year wasn’t in an election year and took place just months after the GOP was routed in the 2012 Presidential elections. This year’s CPAC took place as conservatives and the GOP have rising hopes for a very successful midterm election. The GOP majority in the House is safe and the party has an increasing chance of taking control of the Senate. Any growing enthusiasm for the upcoming election certainly isn’t reflected in greater participation in the CPAC poll.
Reading between the lines of the straw poll, in fact, suggests growing disappointment with the national GOP. A more than one-third drop in the number of poll participants since the GOP swept the 2010 midterms is striking. “Other” tied for third in the CPAC straw poll, in spite of a slate of more than a dozen possible presidential candidates. Worse for the GOP, more than half of voters in the poll, 51%, disapproved of the job the House GOP was doing. Last year, 54% of CPAC voters approved of the job the House GOP was doing.
It is important to keep in mind that CPAC poll participants, especially in recent years, represent a particular segment of the conservative movement. Almost half the poll voters, 46% were aged 18-24. Students made up 42% of the voting universe. The CPAC vote skews much younger than the overall electorate.
There is, however, another way to look at the CPAC voters: the future of the movement.
The heavy youth vote in the CPAC poll shows the strong libertarian tilt of the youngest members of the conservative block. Almost two-thirds of CPAC voters, 63%, favor some form of marijuana legalization. Overwhelmingly, 78% of voters, said the most important policy goal was to promote individual liberty by curtailing government. The same number oppose NSA data collection and believe that spending cuts only should be used to reduce the size of government. A slim majority, 52%, believe it is time for our allies to provide more of their own defense.
Political movements are always evolving. Conversations with restaurant and hotel staff provide anecdotal evidence that CPAC attendance was lower this year than years past. The drop in votes for the straw poll provides a kind of proxy evidence for that. Clearly, some number of conservatives have less enthusiasm for a national con-fab than they did when the GOP first took control of the House.
The shift in underlying attitudes reflects a possibly tectonic shift in policy attitudes among the youngest members of the movement. It is common to observe that the national GOP isn’t connecting with its conservative base voters. The national conservative movement, at least as reflected by the organizers of CPAC, may be facing a similar disconnect.