Donal Blaney is the
Chief Executive of the Young Britons’ Foundation.
Last week saw the 34th
annual gathering of American conservative activists in Washington, DC.
From humble beginnings during the Watergate crisis when only 120 people
came to hear – among others – then Governor Ronald Reagan, this
year’s Conservative Political Action Conference was attended by over
CPAC was addressed by
a number of leading conservative thinkers, journalists and political
figures – including most of the candidates for the Republican Party
John McCain refused to
come, offensively claiming that CPAC attendees do not represent conservative
activists and, insult of insults, were “Washington insiders”.
Delegates reacted rapturously
to two prospective candidates – former Massachusetts governor, Mitt
Romney, and former House Speaker, Newt Gingrich – and warmly to three
others: Senator Sam Brownback, former Governor Mike Huckabee and former
New York Mayor, Rudy Giuliani.
In conjunction with pollsters
Fabrizio McLaughlin, CPAC runs an annual straw poll of activists. Its
sample – 1,705 registered delegates – produced some interesting
Delegates were asked
why they thought the Republicans suffered the losses they did in the
mid-term elections in November. While 20% said that the Republicans’
own performance in Congress was to blame, 30% conceded that the War
in Iraq was the root cause. That said, 82% of delegates favoured the
decision to send an additional 20,000 troops to Iraq.
On foreign policy, a
massive 79% of delegates considered that US foreign policy should be
based on protecting its own economic and national security interests
– as opposed to 17% who felt that spreading democracy around the world
should be the basis of American foreign policy.
Turning to the philosophy
of the presidential nominees, 79% of delegates said that they would
be most likely to support a Republican candidate who called themselves
a Ronald Reagan Republican – as opposed to only 3% who would back
a George W Bush Republican.
As for the philosophy
of the delegates themselves, 50% were free marketeers first and foremost,
30% were traditional values advocates (particularly as regards abortion
and marriage) and 18% put personal and national safety at the forefront
of their beliefs. As a fellow free marketeer, I found it heartening
that we counted for half of the delegates.
So which candidate was
the first choice of the delegates? McCain – who didn’t attend CPAC
– still managed to achieve a creditable 12%. Gingrich – who hadn’t
spoken when the voting closed and who isn’t even a declared candidate
for the nomination – polled 14%. Sam Brownback, the conservative Senator,
polled 15%, Rudy Giuliani achieved 17% and the mormon, Mitt Romney,
won with 21%.
This came as no surprise.
Giuliani’s speech was disappointing (and he had no campaign presence
at all) while Romney, who boasted a youthful, large and enthusiastic
campaign team, spoke with confidence and pushed the right buttons.
Among free marketeers,
Romney and Giuliani were neck and neck. Brownback’s support suffered
as he fell behind even McCain and Gingrich.
Among traditional values
conservatives, Brownback naturally led the field while Giuliani’s
conservatives, Giuliani and McCain polled well in comparison to Brownback
and Gingrich. What was startling was that Romney polled well among all
three classes of conservative.
Delegates were asked
to indicate their second choice candidates. Gingrich and Giuliani did
well in this ballot, perhaps reflecting tactical voting among supporters
of Romney and Brownback – both of whom seemed to recognize the importance
of gaining momentum from CPAC, even at this early stage in the presidential
When combining the first
and second choices of delegates, Romney fell into second place – for
which position he tied with Newt Gingrich. Brownback remained fourth
and McCain languished in fifth. In first place sat the former Mayor
of New York, Rudy Giuliani.
Before Rudy and his team
start thinking of his inauguration address, however, there is a massive
caveat to be borne in mind: in 2000, when Bush polled 40% of delegates’
first and second choices, McCain (who ran Bush close for the nomination)
wasn’t even mentioned. There is, after all, a long way to go before
Iowa and New Hampshire – although that said, the results of the CPAC
straw poll must surely be seen as a boost for Gingrich and Romney, adequate
for Giuliani (who remains the front-runner), a disappointment for Brownback
and a potential hammer blow for McCain.