1. Will Rand Paul 3-peat, and by how much?
Senator Rand Paul has had a very good showing at his first two CPAC conferences as a potential presidential candidate. Paul won the conferences annual straw poll narrowly over Marco Rubio 25-23% in 2013, and ran away with the straw poll in 2014 with 31% of the vote, nearly triple the 11% 2nd place finisher Ted Cruz. These performances make Paul the clear favorite to win the poll, and anything less than that would be seen as a loss for the senator in his 2016 presidential campaign.
2. Can Scott Walker capitalize on recent momentum?
If there has been one major shift in the early landscape of the 2016 elections, it has been the emergence of Scott Walker as a major contender for the nomination. He is polling very well in the early states as well as nationally, and at CPAC 2015 Walker will have a serious chance to continue his positive momentum with a strong showing. His showing at the CPAC 2014 straw poll was surprisingly strong, tying for 5th place at 7%, surprising because he was the only strong finisher to not attend the conference. He will likely make a play to win the poll, though he will ultimately likely have to settle for 2nd or 3rd place. That being said, the larger question for him is if he will deliver the sort of speech at the conference that keeps his momentum strong. If he does, it will go a long way towards convincing the conservative movement that he has the charisma necessary to win a general election.
3. Will the Draft Ben Carson movement have a large presence?
One of the big surprises of CPAC 2014 was the strong showing for Ben Carson in the straw poll, taking 3rd place with 9% and coming just 2 points out of 2nd place. Carson brought supporters in on a bus and gave them signs, which they prominently displayed during his speech and the poll results. His momentum has only grown stronger since this point, and I think he has every reason to expect a strong showing.
4. Does Ted Cruz falter?
With the emergence of Scott Walker and Ben Carson as viable conservative alternatives, Ted Cruz has been put in a real bind in terms of where he fits in a 2016 campaign, and that may very well be reflected in the CPAC straw poll. If Cruz tumbles to 3rd or 4th in this years poll it could mean that the media brands him as the “loser” coming out of the conference. Considering his 2nd place finish last year came directly after his government shutdown stand, which was the height of Cruz’s profile, I think there is reason to expect him to slide a bit this year.
5. Does Mike Huckabee’s CPAC snub harm him?
If there is one top tier candidate who has consistently had difficulty winning over the CPAC audience, it is former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. Huckabee drew an abysmal 2% at the 2014 CPAC straw poll, after putting up such a poor showing in 2013 that he actually fell into the “Other” category of votes. Huckabee has criticized CPAC in the past as being too libertarian, and curiously declined to speak at this years conference. Will this lead to him losing momentum in polls and media coverage? Will it harm him with the conservative base? Furthermore, will it give his opponents an opening to bite into the social conservative base?
6. Will Rick Santorum have yet another strong showing?
One of the things that has been interesting to me in the last 2 CPAC polls has been the strong showings of former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. His “Patriot Voices” group has had a noticeable presence at both gatherings, and will be likely looking to put on a strong show in 2015. In 2013 Santorum came in a distant 3rd in the poll with 8%, and tied for 5th in 2014 with 7%. With Mike Huckabee not attending this year, Santorum may well be the star social conservative of the conference. Can he remain in the top 5 this year, or will it be the year that he finally slides down to the lower tier?
7. Can Chris Christie and Jeb Bush inspire conservatives?
One of the biggest questions going into CPAC is whether or not presumed top tier candidates Jeb Bush and Chris Christie can present a case that they have sufficient conservative appeal to be the Republican nominee. This is Bush’s first major speech in front of a conservative audience in some time, while Christie’s performance at the Iowa Freedom Summit received mixed reviews. A strong performance here for either one would go a long way in an “electability” argument, a crucial talking point for establishment candidates in particular.
8. Will CPAC’s libertarian streak continue?
Since the rise of Ron Paul in 2008, the CPAC conference has been the most visible annual display of the growth and power of the libertarian wing of the Republican Party. This seemed to hit a real turning point at CPAC 2014, where the libertarian candidate got 3 times the votes of any other, and libertarian organizations and panels were prevalent. This was not the CPAC crowd that fought with libertarian activists at previous conferences. This CPAC crowd WAS libertarian. But with the rise of ISIL, will we see that tide turn? Or will it continue?
9. Has the popularity of non interventionism seen a setback?
As mentioned in the last point, the rise of ISIL presents a challenge for libertarianism that will be tested at the CPAC 2015 conference. In the last couple of years a strong non interventionist voice has shown up at the conference, with the majority of straw poll voters wishing for the US to carry out a less interventionist foreign policy. Does ISIL put the interventionists back in the majority? Or will the libertarian movement continue to flex its muscle?
10. Will Young Americans for Liberty take over CPAC?
One of the things that has aided the libertarian dominance of CPAC has been the explosive growth and continuously growing presence of the campus based activist group Young Americans for Liberty (YAL). YAL has assisted many students and non students alike in getting to the conference in previous years with subsidized tickets and hotel rooms, and had a massive presence in the CPAC Hub (where organizations set up information booths) at CPAC 2014. Many news publications have written about the huge libertarian presence at the previous two CPAC conferences, and YAL is largely to thank for that. Will their growth at CPAC 2015 be even more evident than in previous years, and if so how does that impact the narrative coming out of the conference?
11. Has the power of the NSA issue faded?
The NSA spying issue was unquestionably one of the major themes of the CPAC 2014 conference. There were many parts of the conference which addressed the NSA; the straw poll asked a question on the issue, Rand Paul made it a central part of his speech, and there was a fiery panel where constitutional attorney Bruce Fein and former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore went at it over the issue. But this has not been in the news as much as it was at that point. It will be very interesting to see if the NSA issue is once again a major theme of CPAC, or if it takes a backseat to other pressing issues.
12. Will there be a CPAC controversy?
It seems that nearly every year, there is some sort of controversy involving either a CPAC speaker, audience member or organizational choice. Last year it was the disallowance of the American Atheists from setting up a booth at the conference, where in 2013 CPAC’s major controversy happened when a man stood up and began a bizarre racist rant in the middle of a panel about reaching out to minorities. Will we see a more explosive controversy like in 2013, or will there be a different point of contention coming out of the conference?
13. Can conservatives accept gay marriage?
With the disproportionate representation of young conservatives at CPAC, and young Republicans favoring the legalization of gay marriage by a small majority, one major chasm that has emerged is how to address the marriage issue. Polling seems to indicate that acceptance of same sex marriage is at an all time high, and is increasingly growing amongst Republicans. CPAC has a panel on marriage this year, and it will be fascinating to see if the crowd reacts more favorably to the traditional Republican arguments, or the libertarian arguments that have gained more traction in recent years.
14. Does Sarah Palin flop again?
Very few people have had a rougher few weeks then former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, who delivered a bizarre, rambling speech at the Iowa Freedom Summit which many said disqualified her from running in 2016, something she’s expressed interest in. Palin’s keynote speech at CPAC 2014 was nearly as bizarre, as she delivered a Dr Seuss esque poem about Obamacare and generally was lacking in substance. Will her speech this year remind us of what John McCain saw in her back in 2008, or will it be a repeat of the Freedom Summit flop?
15. Will CPAC 2015 have an impact on the 2016 election?
This all being said, perhaps the biggest question of all whether any of this matters to begin with. The debate surrounding the significance of the conference as it relates to the presidential landscape is debated every year in the weeks before and after CPAC. While the conferences profile in the media seems to grow every year and candidates spend more time and money every year to make their case, one wonders if that trend will continue going into what organizers call the “most important CPAC ever”.
Liberty Conservatives will be covering the whole thing live, and we hope you folks will stick with us throughout CPAC weekend for the exciting coverage!