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Despite Republicans cooling on him, CPAC is still the Trump show

Alex Brandon/AP
Former President Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Saturday.

Listen to the Story (00:03:46)



Saturday marked the final day of the Conservative Political Action Conference, and former President Donald Trump delivered the closing act.

"Change only happens if we plow fearlessly ahead and declare with one voice that the era of woke and weaponized government is over. That is our task, that is our mission. And this is the turning point and the time for that decision," Trump said, speaking to a crowd of CPAC attendees at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in Maryland. The speech comes more than three months after he announced another bid for president.

The former president spoke for more than 90 minutes, ticking through a list of pledges for a second term in office while also hitting on points he's repeatedly made in past speeches since leaving the White House, notably the lie that he won the 2020 election.

Trump also criticized a handful of the Biden administration's policies, vowing to end the war in Ukraine and cut down on U.S. foreign aid.

He took aim at establishment Republicans that led the party in the early and mid-2010s — calling out the change in party ideals since he became a prominent political figure.

"We had a Republican Party that was ruled by freaks, neocons, globalists, open borders zealots and fools but we are never going back to the party of Paul Ryan, Karl Rove and Jeb Bush," he said.

Trump's speech marked the third and final candidate address at CPAC this year, following remarks from former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy on Friday.

And while CPAC has morphed into an event spotlighting Trump-backed political allies and conservative media personalities — including giving speaking time this year to the far-right former president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro — the Republican conference has long been seen as one of the most significant annual events for GOP leaders to lay the preliminary groundwork for potential presidential campaigns.

This year also marks the first time CPAC has returned to the Washington, D.C., area since 2020. But it's been embattled in controversy, as Matthew Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, which oversees CPAC, faces allegations of sexual misconduct — which he's denied. The event also faced an enthusiasm problem, noting a drop in ticket sales compared to previous years.

At the same time, many of Trump's rumored primary opponents, notably Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, declined invitations to the event. DeSantis, a CPAC speaker in past years, is widely seen as Trump's biggest primary threat if he gets into the race.

Other Republicans rumored to be weighing presidential runs were also absent throughout the conference, including former Vice President Mike Pence, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu.

Many of these 2024 hopefuls are instead attending a weekend event hosted by the conservative economics organization Club For Growth — which notably did not invite Trump. Though the group supported Trump during his 2020 campaign, it publicly split from him during the 2022 midterms when he began endorsing far-right candidates that the organization did not support.

The split events indicate a potentially larger divide within the GOP as the party continues to decide if Trump is still the best candidate to face off with the eventual Democratic nominee in another presidential matchup.

CPAC is still Trump country

The former president remains the front-runner for many CPAC attendees, regardless of who else is — or isn't — taking the stage.

For Allyse Wolf, Trump is why she's here.

"He's talked the talk," said Wolf, accompanied by a group of four friends in matching red, white and blue bedazzled jackets, each wearing a T-shirt that together spelled "Trump."

"He wants to walk the walk and finish the job he began," Wolf added.

Wolf isn't alone in thinking like that. Trump's name is written all over the walls of CPAC — or, rather, on the shirts, hats, banners, buttons and stickers a handful of attendees sported.

That said, many of these die-hard fans can still acknowledge the growing popularity DeSantis may have.

"He needs to finish his term in Florida, and then in 2028 run. Let Trump get his four years in," Michael Boatman, who traveled to CPAC from Indiana, told NPR.

Boatman regularly attends the former president's rallies, adding that Trump helped propel DeSantis to victory in 2018 when he first ran for governor, so now, he needs to back Trump this time around.

"DeSantis needs to come out and say, 'I'm not running in 2024, and I give my endorsement to Trump.' "

DeSantis' 2024 chances are slim in the eyes of Ryan Dokter from Holland, Mich.

"DeSantis isn't even running yet, so I guess we'll see but good luck," he chuckled, "Nikki Haley showed up yesterday, and people were chanting, 'We love Trump,' so good luck."

Trump overwhelmingly won in CPAC's annual presidential straw poll, gaining 62% of the vote. DeSantis came in second with 20%.

But Trump's support is waning

Though Trump remains a solid front-runner, Republican voters are open to someone new. According to a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist survey, more than half of Republicans say their party has a better chance of winning the presidency with someone other than Trump on the ticket.

And after Trump's defeat in 2020 and a slew of losses from Trump-backed, far-right candidates in the midterms, it's pushed some conservatives at CPAC to leave their options open a little longer.

"I like Trump's policies a lot. I think he should keep on trying to promote them. I just don't think he should be president," said Jordan Pyeritz from Virginia.

"Republicans like to criticize Biden because of his age and that he's senile. Donald Trump is going to be just as old as Joe Biden is right now. Like why do we have a 80-year-old president — no matter whose side you're on, I think most people agree that that's ridiculous," Pyeritz added.

Young voters — and 2024 — present an opportunity for conservatives at CPAC

Over the years, CPAC has been a hot spot for mobilizing more young Republican voters, an age group Republicans have historically struggled with compared to Democrats. And this year's events come just months after the youngest branch of the electorate overwhelmingly voted for Democrats.

To 18-year-old Anna Hopper from Arkansas, Republicans need to start welcoming more young people into the party. The leader with the Arkansas Federation of Teenage Republicans supports Trump, though she's waiting to pick a candidate until the primary field fleshes out.

"I think we need someone who's genuine, who can connect with the youth and connect in a way that tells them, we care about you and we don't just care about you because of your vote. We would appreciate your vote because we respect you as the next generation coming into the party or just coming into the country as the new workforce," Hopper said.

That goal of getting more young people engaged in Republican politics is one that Iowan Joe Mitchell shares.

"We need a win back, those 10 to 20 percentage points of youth voters that normally, at the ballot box, end up voting for top ticket Republican candidates that now voted down ballot Democrat," said Mitchell, who's the founder of RunGenZ, an organization that supports young Republicans running for office.

In the 2022 midterms, voters under 30 broke for Democrats by a 28-point margin, the second-highest turnout for Democrats in a midterm among this voting group after 2018. Mitchell points to smaller margins less than 10 years ago; he wants to get back to that.

To do this, he says, Republicans need to address issues young people care about — providing conservative viewpoints on environmental policy, education, abortion and guns.

But CPAC, he adds, isn't the place to appeal to voters who are on the fence about the Republican Party; it's for individuals already locked in. And, in the Republican primary, Mitchell doesn't envision GOP presidential candidates making a larger effort with younger voters.

"That's not the voting base in the primary, unfortunately. They are going to be going after those red-meat issues for older Republican voters, the people that are consistent and will come out and vote."

And when the general election comes around, Mitchell hopes the nominee, whoever it may be, courts that youth vote.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.