CPAC: Young, Pro-Market And Pro-Pot

National Harbor, MD

The presidential horse race chews up all the headlines of the CPAC Straw Poll, but there are issue questions that provide a glimpse into the thoughts and concerns of the most engaged conservative activists. This year’s results confirm that the CPAC crowd is different from the general media assumption about conservatives. Participants in the poll are young, more interested in economic rather than social issues, and generally favor legalizing marijuana.

This is not your father’s conservative movement.

Of the roughly 3,000 straw poll participants, half were under 25. Just 17 percent were 55 or older. Attendees at CPAC have always skewed younger than the general population, of course, if no other reason than older activists can’t take the time off work to attend.

That said, the young activists who attend CPAC are among the most committed to the political movement. Their views, and their actions, will shape the future priorities of conservatives.

Perhaps the most striking result from this year’s straw poll is that just 27 percent of conservative activists think marijuana should remain illegal. Two-thirds say marijuana should be legal in some form, with a strong 41 percent saying it should be legal for recreational use. Twenty-six percent say it should be legal with a doctor’s prescription.

Attendees haven’t abandoned social conservatism, though. Almost three-quarters, 74 percent, identify themselves as pro-life. Just 18 percent self-identify as pro-choice. The overwhelming majority of this group, however, would ban abortion after the first trimester.

It isn’t so much that general conservative beliefs have changed as much as their priorities. More than half, 52 percent, say a candidate’s economic agenda is the most important factor in deciding whom to support. Second to this, at 29 percent, is foreign policy.

Just 7 percent of attendees would base their support on social issues such as education and health care and only 9 percent would base their support on moral issues such as abortion and marriage.

This prioritization of economic or free-market issues continues a marked trend over the last decade. In 2006, attendees split almost evenly on whether economic or social issues should be the top priority for conservatives. In 2009, as the tea party movement was just building, 74 percent of CPAC attendees said economic issues should take precedence over social issues.

The 15 percent who in 2009 said social issues were most important for the movement is similar to the 16 percent who said this year that social or moral issues would be most important in selecting a nominee. The only real difference since 2009 is the growing anxiety about world affairs and terrorist threats.

The presidential vote in the CPAC straw poll is important as a reflection of the organizational capabilities of potential campaigns. It is understandable that if attracts the most attention. We would do well to examine the full poll, however. More than the horse race, it gives us a preview of where the movement is heading.