Donald Trump is still the undisputed leader of the Republican Party. But you probably already knew that. The medley of conservative voters, politicians, activists and political commentators that descended on Dallas this past weekend for this year’s second Conservative Political Action Conference certainly did.
But some things are less clear. Namely, ahead of the midterm elections, GOP voters seem to be casting about for the best path forward and debating whether their energy would be better utilized by relitigating the results of last year’s presidential race (again) or chugging forward to what’s expected to be a grueling midterm cycle.
This schism amongst Republicans was on display throughout the weekend. Take, for example, a conversation I had with James Scott, a once-reluctant Trump supporter who’s now all in. After retrieving a hot coffee on the second day of CPAC, he sheepishly admitted to me that, back in 2016, he “held his nose” before voting for the now-former president. Standing across from me with a “Come and See” baseball cap, the bespectacled retiree described his past self as a “Marco Rubio aficionado” who joined Team Trump only after Trump announced an ultra-conservative Supreme Court shortlist ahead of the 2016 general election. And now, Scott is so devoted that he believes assessing Trump’s baseless lies about rampant election fraud is critical to the GOP’s future. “We must have election integrity,” he told me. The truth, he added, “must be brought out because the future depends on it.”
Compare that, though, to 20-year-old Aaron Genus, a college student, Instagram personality and restaurant worker who came to the conference from Michigan. Genus made clear that he, too, believed the 2020 election was “an absolute joke;” but unlike Scott, he’s ready for the party to move on. “In America, there’s no such thing as an election do-over,” he said. “Once Trump got in that helicopter and waved goodbye, it was over. There’s no way to undo what happened. All we can do is fight for our election integrity come the next two cycles.”
Heading into CPAC, I was curious where voters’ heads were at. How preoccupied would attendees be with rehashing 2020 versus looking ahead to 2022? In years past, CPAC has been a useful barometer for the base of the Republican Party and its most fervent activists — even if it isn’t always indicative of the party’s future. This year was no exception, although the choice of whether to press on from the previous election is arguably a new one.
A bevy of speakers decried claims of a stolen election (though they are false), and at least two events were devoted exclusively to how to spot and guard against election fraud. Other panels focused on how to expand the party’s base, and ahead of Trump’s culminating speech, an emcee declared that “2022 starts right here.” What I found, though, is that only a small handful of attendees were actually ready to move on.
After losing the U.S. House in 2018 and the Senate and White House in 2020, Republicans are eager to identify candidates who can help them successfully reclaim Congress in 2022 and the presidency in 2024. But if this weekend’s CPAC conference is any indication of the party’s priorities, some of the staunchest Republicans are more concerned about challenging the last election than winning the next.
“I still feel we were so cheated in 2020 and I don’t think that’s been resolved,” attendee Pat DeLange, who turned 63 on Saturday, told me. “So when there is cheating involved it needs to be exposed. I think we need to get the rightful president back in office so he can fix this and wake people up.”
Trump, for his part, seemed more concerned with the past, too. If nothing else, it’s one way for him to maintain relevance as the party’s de facto leader while he irons out his future plans. During a roughly 90-minute speech on Sunday, he mentioned — similar to prior interviews and appearances — a “rigged election” and sarcastically quipped that he “lost” last year’s race. (The crowd went wild at these bits, repeatedly booing at claims of fraud.) But perhaps most notably, he continued to tease supporters on whether he’ll run again. (“I will never stop fighting for you,” he told a brimming crowd, which chanted back, “Four more years!”)
On the one hand, considering Trump’s grip on the party — 53 percent of self-identified Republicans said in a May Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll that they believe he is the “true president” — it’s not surprising that supporters are still overwhelmingly taking cues from the former president. Recent polls on who won the 2020 election confirm that much of the party isn’t over last year, either. In November, roughly three in four Trump supporters said Biden’s win was due to voter fraud, per a Monmouth University poll. And those numbers have barely budged. According to that May Reuters/Ipsos survey, 56 percent of Republicans still believe the election was rigged.
Experts I spoke to ahead of the convention said they’ve never seen a past president maintain his position as head of a political party as Trump has, but they weren’t shocked with the crowd’s obsession with the past either. “It’s not a real future-oriented crowd. I’d say they’re more interested in what they see as [a] fraudulent election and litigating all that,” said Robert Saldin, a professor of political science at the University of Montana. “But it’s always been a backwards looking thing. ‘Make America Great Again’ is casting a tide to the past, so I think, in a way, there’s always been a backwards focus there that’s been relatively rare in American politics.”
Indeed, fealty to Trump (and, by virtue, his false claims of fraud) were a key theme of the weekend. Not only were attendees there wearing a sea of red, white and blue outfits and accessories bearing Trump’s face and name, they overwhelmingly selected Trump as their preferred candidate for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination in the CPAC straw poll. He captured 70 percent of the ballots in the anonymous survey — a boost from the 55 percent he won in a similar poll at the Orlando CPAC conference in February. Also during the conference, attendees circulated a seven-point plot to reinstate Trump as president in a matter of days. (There’s no constitutional mechanism for reinstating a former president.)
Of course, those who want to leave 2020 behind were at the conference, too, but they were a minority. On the last day of CPAC, I found Grizzly Joe, a Trump supporter who received national attention for telling CNN he believed Biden was the true winner of the November election. (While he had media credentials for the event, he told me he was half there for coverage and half there as an attendee.) “Looking in the rearview mirror isn’t going to help us move forward,” he told me. When I asked him whether there’s too much focus right now on debunked claims of fraud, he told me that, “some people are like a dog with a bone. If there’s fraud let’s find it, root it out and fix it. … But people jumping up and down bellyaching about Trump being the real president isn’t going to put Trump back in the White House.”
A second conversation with Barbara Lewis, 65, who wore a Trump 2024 shirt and blue leggings with red and white stars, yielded much of the same sentiment. “They fought the [last] election enough, and the fight kind of just needs to end. I don’t think they can go any further with the fight.”
It’s too early to say where the Republican Party will go from here, but at least for now, it’s clear that Trump and the 2020 election are still very resonant in voters’ minds. And that makes perfect sense considering Trump himself has a foot in both the past and the future.