CPAC 2023 Was Not Well Attended

CPAC 2023 Was Not Well Attended

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I did not attend CPAC 2023 this year for various reasons, mostly time and cost. Compared to Florida, Washington D.C. is prohibitively expensive, with fewer food and lodging options. Also, after two years of a popular, and well-received (not to mention warmer) event, I wasn’t interested in wasting energy, money, and time dealing with the cold, crime-ridden, and freedom-restricted swamp that is D.C.

From attendee and news reports, my instincts were right, and apparently, others felt the same. The Washington Examiner unpacks the bad news for the Conservative Political Action Conference.

The Conservative Political Action Conference’s return to the nation’s capital has proved to be less than triumphant, with the mainstay political conference suffering from lower attendance and fewer high-profile sponsors.

The conference, once a mandatory stop for aspiring Republican presidential candidates, saw several notable Republicans such as former Vice President Mike Pence, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), and numerous other governors skip the high-profile convention. Meanwhile, longtime attendees noted a sea-change in the number of attendees and sponsors.

According to reports, approximately 4,000 tickets were sold. It was estimated that attendance was a little over 2,000, which is almost half that did not attend the event. According to the Washington Examiner, attendees were also underwhelmed.

Vickie Froehlich, an attendee who said she had attended the conference multiple times, noted the lower attendance and said the absence of Fox News in the media hub and the exhibit hall likely contributed to the event’s inability to draw presidential aspirants.

“It’s been a huge difference that Fox is not here,” Froehlich said. “Fox helped get the candidates out here to be interviewed, so it’s noticeable to me that they’re not here.” Several other attendees the Washington Examiner spoke to similarly noted the smaller crowd.

Losing Fox News as a high-profile sponsor must have hurt. While the network is no longer an arbiter of the grassroots, they do still carry the media juice that helps coalesce others in media within its orbit.

The absence of high-profile attendees was exacerbated by the Club for Growth’s donor retreat, which is drawing many of the notable figures who skipped out on CPAC. And further complicating the conference’s image are sexual assault accusations leveled against its Chairman Matt Schlapp by a former male staffer of Herschel Walker’s Georgia senate campaign. Schlapp has denied the allegation.

According to the Palm Beach Post, Club for Growth didn’t even bother to invite former President Donald Trump, choosing instead to spotlight what it deemed, “new talent.”

“We wanted to show all of the different talent that was in the Republican Party, thinking about running or being speculated about running,” McIntosh told the Palm Beach Post on Saturday.

No matter how much Schlapp likes to posit CPAC as “grassroots,” the event, and the Schlapps, are as establishment as it gets. This push to get it back to D.C. was only confirmation of this, and the young conservatives and activists want no part of it. The sexual assault allegations against Matt Schlapp are only more icing on this cake.

Dennis Lennox, a Republican strategist from Michigan, told the Washington Examiner in an interview that he had attended every CPAC since 2007 and identified three factors as the primary driver of the event’s struggle to draw attendees: overpriced tickets, an identity crisis about the conference’s purpose, and an increase in competitor events.

Boom, Boom, and Boom. In unpacking factors one and two, it is factor number three—the competitor events—which will ultimately be the nail that seals CPAC’s coffin.

Turning Point USA’s Amfest 2022 happened in December, and I was in attendance. RedState had a booth on media row, and the atmosphere had the electricity and energy of past CPACs. Electricity and energy that was sorely lacking at CPAC 2023.

Attendees browse the exhibition hall at CPAC 2023, March 2, 2023. CREDIT: Kevin McKeever, used with permission.

In my Amfest 2022 coverage, I noted:

This obsession CPAC has with needing to be in The Swamp in order to wheel, deal, and spotlight the voices of elected officials is a dated fever dream; a testament to this is that many of the young and fresh congressional faces and conservative voices are 2,000+ miles away in Arizona this weekend.

With this second AmFest, it’s clear that it’s the conference that will be the most relevant to conservatism and especially conservative activism. AmFest is future forward in its planning and execution and has the youthful juice and technological knowledge that is drawing in young Millennials and Generation Z. If these generations do not carry conservatism forward, then it is as good as dead.

The ReAwaken America tour, headlined by Lt. Colonel and former Trump National Security Advisor Michael J. Flynn, also occurred in January, before CPAC. No doubt, this also contributed to siphoning the conference crowd that CPAC normally draws. Even the Leftist magazine Rolling Stone noted the reduction in attendance, despite Trump’s presence. When they interviewed CPAC’s vice chairman, he pretended to be nonplussed.

CPAC vice chairman Steven J. Allen, who has faithfully attended the conference for decades, thinks “‘fatigue’ from the 2022 midterms,” and “the proliferation of CPAC events in other states like Florida” could be the reason behind the lack of seat fillers.

“I’m fine with it, at least for me personally,” Allen said. “I don’t see enough of a difference to be concerned at all.”

Yeah, even he smells what he’s shoveling. Along with its organizational woes, CPAC needs to redefine who it is and fast, as it is already being overshadowed by more true grassroots, and essentially more relevant conservative events. Washington, D.C. has never been a popular place in the conservative imagination, and under the Biden presidency and the radical deep state apparatus, it is even less so. As my colleague Duke pointed out, aside from the history and political necessity, it’s not a place anyone wants to be any time of the year. Most conservatives view the government and many blue states as hostile and inherently suspect. CPAC’s insistence on continually aligning to the model that props up and promotes D.C. only marginalizes the grassroots conservative activists, and everyday citizens across the U.S. who are making a difference in their local communities, and thereby nationally. These other conferences are welcoming them with open arms (and less expensive environs), and they are leaning into that embrace. With high inflation and resources in short supply, conservatives no longer wish to pour their time, energy, and money into any organization that does not support them or the American values they wish to see restored and upheld.

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