The Republican faithful flocked to Dallas for the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) over the weekend as the GOP strategizes ahead of the 2022 and 2024 election cycles.
The confab marked an opportunity for the grassroots to rub shoulders with leaders of the GOP, including former President Trump, who are jockeying for position with activists and voters ahead of reelection bids next year as well as potential presidential campaigns three years from now.
The bash also highlighted the issues that are currently animating the party's base six months into the Biden administration, including gripes over the 2020 election, critical race theory and more.
Here are five takeaways from the weekend’s conference.
Trump’s popularity remains strong
Trump’s popularity among the GOP base was proven again during CPAC’s straw poll taken of its attendees, underscoring his ongoing role as the de facto head of the party.
Trump led the straw poll of potential 2024 contenders, with 70 percent of respondents saying they would vote for him in the Republican primary if it were held today. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) came in second with 21 percent, while no other candidate polled above 1 percent.
The showing marked a jump from the 55 percent support he enjoyed in the same type of straw poll at CPAC Orlando in late February.
"I want to personally thank each and every one of you for your incredible support," Trump said during a speech at the conference shortly after the results were announced.
The result was particularly promising for Trump after a straw poll at the Western Conservative Summit in Denver last month showed DeSantis with a slight edge.
Last weekend’s survey was in line with several other public polls showing Trump with substantial sway among GOP voters.
The former president has forecast that he will use his influence to play the role of Republican kingmaker, doling out endorsements for candidates and campaigning across the country heading into the 2022 midterms, including in some instances against incumbent Republicans he views as insufficiently loyal to him and his agenda.
Conspiracy theories linger among the base
Conspiracy theories around the 2020 election and the Jan. 6 insurrection abounded at the conference, underscoring the depths to which the base has internalized Trump’s claims that the 2020 election was “stolen” from him.
Attendees chanted “four more years” while the former president was on stage, and Trump repeated the allegation that widespread fraud and other irregularities swayed the November contest away from him and toward President Biden — an assertion for which he’s provided no substantive evidence.
“This must never happen to another party’s presidential candidate again, it can never happen. We are a laughingstock all over the world, a laughingstock,” he said.
Trump also took aim at media outlets that point out that he has not presented evidence, claiming to applause the instances of fraud are out there for supporters to see.
“Every time the media references the election hoax, they say the fraud is 'Unproven! And while there is no evidence ...' No evidence? No evidence? There's so much evidence,” he said.
Elsewhere at CPAC, merchandise was being sold to promote the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory, which posits that Trump will oversee a military takeover to oust from power a cabal of satanic child sex traffickers.
Recent polls have shown the extent to which conspiracy theories surrounding the election and other issues have seeped into the Republican mainstream.
A Morning Consult-Politico poll released last month showed that a slim majority of Republican voters believe that state-level reviews of the 2020 presidential election will reveal new information and reverse the outcome of the contest.
Noem comes out swinging
While much of the attention centered around Trump at the weekend conference, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R), another potential 2024 contender, also drew headlines over her remarks about other states’ restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic.
Noem specifically took aim at other Republican governors for putting in place what she suggested were overly harsh measures aimed at combating the spread of the virus.
“We've got Republican governors across this country pretending they didn't shut down their states; that they didn't close their regions; that they didn't mandate masks. ... Now I'm not picking fights with Republican governors. All I'm saying is that we need leaders with grit. That their first instinct is the right instinct,” she said during her speech.
Noem has leaned into her approach to handling the pandemic to bolster her conservative bona fides, repeatedly highlighting in recent months her refusal to impose a mask mandate in South Dakota, among other things.
The buzz around her policies has put her name in the conversation of potential 2024 contenders. However, she still faces headwinds in a potentially crowded field, netting only 1 percent support in CPAC’s straw poll.
Culture war issues dominate
The CPAC conference underscored just how animated the GOP base is by a handful of culture issues, including claims equating Democrats to socialists, immigration, the debate over critical race theory and so-called cancel culture.
Trump made sure to hit on several of those issues during his speech, ensuring they will remain front-of-mind for GOP voters moving forward.
“This is a very, very special place and we’re going to keep it the way it is,” he said. “With the help of everyone here today, we will defeat the radical left, the socialist, Marxist and the critical race theorists.
“We will secure our borders, we will stop left-wing cancel culture, we will restore free speech and fair elections, and we will make American great again,” he said.
The remarks come as Republicans rail against Biden’s decision to remove Trump-era immigration restrictions, claiming the president’s policies are leading to a spike in attempted border crossings, and ongoing recriminations over the 2020 race.
However, it is critical race theory, which posits that racism is deep-seated in the history of the United States and its current laws, that has become the leading front in the culture wars.
The issue has roiled school boards across the country and led Republican governors to sign laws banning the teaching of it in public schools, even though schools in those states were not teaching it.
COVID-19 plays outsized role
The conference also put partisan divides over the coronavirus pandemic and vaccination efforts into stark relief.
Surveys and research have already shown that Democrats are more likely than Republicans to get vaccinated and that counties that supported Trump in 2020 are lagging behind their Biden-backing counterparts in their vaccination efforts.
The refusal by swaths of the Republican base to get vaccinated was accentuated by applause at the conference in response to a comment about the government’s headwinds toward expanding vaccinations among the public.
“The government was hoping that they could sort of sucker 90 percent of the population into getting vaccinated. And it isn’t happening,” conservative author Alex Berenson said over the weekend, sparking applause from the audience.
The trend undercuts a key Democratic argument heading into the midterms, which is that voters will be grateful to the Biden administration for its efforts to put the pandemic in the rearview mirror and back Democrats in 2022.
But more than that, health officials warned, it could prolong the fight against the virus and lead to more infections, variants and deaths.
“It’s horrifying. I mean, they are cheering about someone saying that it’s a good thing for people not to try and save their lives. I mean, if you just unpack that for a second, Jake, it’s almost frightening to say, ‘Hey, guess what, we don’t want you to do something to save your life. Yay!’ Everybody starts screaming and clapping,” Anthony Fauci, the government’s leading infectious diseases expert, told CNN host Jake Tapper over the weekend. “I just don’t get that, and I don’t think that anybody who’s thinking clearly can get that. What is that all about? I don’t understand that, Jake.”