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What Did CPAC Tell Us About The Future Of The GOP?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarah (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): In 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump skipped out on the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, but this year he dominated the group’s event with his speech on Sunday, which marked his first major public event since leaving the White House.

[Related: The GOP Might Still Be Trump’s Party. But That Doesn’t Mean There’s Room For Him.]

Most former presidents generally take a step back from the political limelight once leaving office, but Trump doesn’t seem likely to do that. That means, in many ways, the next four years could be another Trump-fueled media cycle: centered on divisions within the GOP, with questions about how they affect Democrats’ strategy and, of course, how much the media should (or shouldn’t) be covering Trump.

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Let’s break this chat into three parts:

  1. How should the Republican Party think about Trump’s continued presence? Kingmaker? Or faction leader?
  2. How should Democrats think about his continued role? That is, if Trump’s vision of the GOP wins out, how does that help (or hurt) Democrats politically?
  3. And finally, how should the media cover Trump now that he is out of the White House? Are there journalistic questions of how much coverage he should receive? Or is that beside the point, especially if he runs in 2024?

Let’s start with the Republican Party. One question that is going to keep coming up is whether the GOP is divided. My question to you all is: Is it?

alex (Alex Samuels, politics reporter): In my opinion, no. The GOP is still the party of Trump, and I think his speech Sunday night proved a lot of that. What we saw at CPAC — over and over (and over) again — was a good number of politicians lavishing praise on the former president.

There weren’t any dissenting opinions, and the Liz Cheneys/Mitt Romneys of the party 1) were not invited, 2) declined to speak and/or 3) were booed at the rally by Trump and his supporters. Trump has his thumb on the scale of the party currently, and I don’t think the minority of anti-Trump Republicans is strong enough right now to fundamentally drive a wedge through the GOP

lee.drutman (Lee Drutman, senior fellow at New America and FiveThirtyEight contributor): I do think, though, that the GOP is divided in terms of policy priorities, which is why there was very little discussion of policy at CPAC. The GOP is not, however, divided in terms of whether or not Trump is still the alpha male of the party. In the absence of a clear challenger, or a clear opposition faction, Trump is still very much in charge.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): There are different blocs in the GOP. In my view, there are: 1) the most Trumpy people (so say Rep. Jim Jordan in the House), 2) the anti-Trump people like Cheney, 3) the rest of the people in the party, who are fairly pro-Trump but may not be totally on board with everything he says or with him running in 2024. I think Group 3 is most Republicans, and Group 2 is very small.

But, Lee, what do you think are the policy divides? That seems right to me, but I don’t know what the policies are, so I don’t know what the divides are.

lee.drutman: I think the big policy divides are over economics. There is a wing of the party, led by Sen. Josh Hawley, that very much wants to lean into being a “workers party” with higher minimum wage, strong antitrust laws, etc. Then there is a more traditional libertarian economic wing, which is skeptical of all that. These divisions are below the surface, and probably will remain so long as Republicans are in the opposition. But we could see them play out at the state level.

alex: This was an interesting read on how young conservatives are split from Trump and their elders on foreign policy, too.

lee.drutman: On one level, it seems odd that CPAC leaned into “cancel culture,” since that is nowhere near a priority issue for most Americans. But on another level, it makes total sense. It’s a purely symbolic issue that can unite Republicans, and it also taps into a kind of grievance politics that has been successful for Republicans, proving great for fundraising and engagement.

sarah: But the fact that CPAC chose to lean into “cancel culture” instead of policy is telling, right?

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lee.drutman: It’s very telling. And it’s exactly what the Republican National Committee did during its convention. Everything is about conservative values being under siege and about ‘radical liberal socialist Democrats’ trying to somehow change America, and Republicans fighting back against that. It’s a classic preservation story.

But the result of that is there is no forward-looking policy agenda, or at least nothing more than a handful of Republicans could agree on.

sarah: So how should the Republican Party think about Trump’s continued presence? Kingmaker? Or more of a faction leader?

lee.drutman: I think of Trump as the presumptive 2024 nominee.

sarah: Really?! Tell us why.

lee.drutman: Well, simply because he’s way ahead in the polling, and clearly wants to run again.

sarah: Are you talking about that CPAC straw poll?

lee.drutman: I was thinking about polling after the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6 that found that a majority of Republican voters would support him in the 2024 primary (54 percent). That was way more support than any other Republican received.

sarah: Ah, I wouldn’t put too much stock in any general head-to-head polls this far out. They’re just not that predictive. Also, this is not a scientific poll, but the fact that Trump won only 55 percent of support in that CPAC straw poll is telling. Yes, it was still far more than any other candidate, but CPAC is his core base, and yet, 45 percent of attendees said they’d vote for someone other than Trump in the 2024 Republican primary. He’s obviously still very influential in GOP politics, but I think we lose sight that we’ve still got three years to go until 2024.

alex: I’d say Trump is a kingmaker. I think a lot of this boils down to the fact that Trump supporters still love Trump. Even after Jan. 6, 59 percent of GOP voters said Trump should still have a “major role” in the Republican Party going forward.

This is a rhetorical question I have, but what’s in it for the Trump loyalists at this point? Especially those with 2024 aspirations? Take Sen. Ted Cruz, for example, who netted single-digits in the straw poll. If Trump runs in 2024, where does that leave him?

lee.drutman: I think a lot of these single-digit pollers, like Cruz, are hoping that if Trump bows out, they can be his chosen successor, or if Trump does run, perhaps his running mate. At this point, they’re in too deep to have any other aspirations.

sarah: That’s right, and I’d assume, too, that over the next four years there is going to be a tendency to dismiss the Trump loyalists as only capable of showing fealty to Trump, but I think that’s shortsighted.

This wing of the party has spokespeople. They were at CPAC (Gov. Ron DeSantis, Sen. Rick Scott), and I think are presumably testing the waters for a bid. So maybe Cruz’s big takeaway from the weekend is that he shouldn’t run 😂 Meanwhile, DeSantis might seriously want to consider a bid (he won the CPAC straw poll that didn’t feature Trump.)

Remember, a much higher share of attendees — 95 percent — said they wanted the Republican Party to stick to Trump’s policies and agenda than endorsed him running again. So his policies/approach to politics isn’t going anywhere, even if he’s not the one to carry out the message.

But let’s pivot to how Democrats think about his continued role? That is, if Trump’s vision of the GOP wins out, how does that help (or hurt) Democrats politically?

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lee.drutman: Democrats are facing tough headwinds because historically, the president’s party loses seats in the midterm elections, and Republicans are about to go on a binge of passing restrictive voting rules on the state level. Not to mention, they largely control the redistricting process.

But, since Trump is broadly unpopular and useful as a mobilizing/fundraising villain, I suspect Democrats are going to lean into Republicans as the party of Trump in their messaging and spend a lot of time on what happened on Jan. 6. And this helps Democrats on the margins, by reminding modestly affluent suburban constituencies in key swing districts what’s at stake, but I’m not sure it’s enough if Republicans turn the gerrymandering/voter suppression dials to 11.

alex: If Trump is still in the driver’s seat, an argument that Democrats could use is that you can’t separate those in the party from their leader — even if you have some GOP outliers. What Democrats have long argued is that even anti-Trump Republicans can’t cherry-pick the former president’s legacy: Republicans own Trump’s policies, and that included his tax cuts, a crackdown on immigration and unsuccessful efforts to undo the Affordable Care Act. Plus, a majority of Republicans at least implicitly supported aspects of Trumpism, like his anti-immigrant sentiment and the racism on display from those who stormed the U.S. Capitol, including white supremacists.

perry: A Republican Party deeply invested in Trump is going to be deeply invested in defending “the big lie” (that Trump won) and deeply invested in trying to make it harder for Democrats to vote and not willing to accept Democratic victories. So in some ways, a Trump-led GOP is a problem for Democrats but also for those who support values conducive to democracy.

alex: I agree there, Perry.

[Related: In America’s ‘Uncivil War,’ Republicans Are The Aggressors]

lee.drutman: The “big lie” is also going to be very powerful for Republican fundraising efforts going into 2022. There’s nothing like grievance politics to shake loose the donations, and I have to wonder if that’s part of the strategy here.

alex: Another rhetorical question I have is whether Republican fundraising efforts will be different from Trump’s fundraising efforts (i.e., will someone like McCarthy have to choose between the former president, who is a great fundraiser and has a history of supporting winning candidates, and his own incumbents?).

lee.drutman: I’d bet we’re going to see the former president on an awful lot of fundraising emails from both parties over the next cycle.

sarah: With the midterms coming up and Republicans defending 20 of 34 seats up for election in the Senate, I think Democrats are eager for there to be drama in the GOP. I just question how much drama/division there really is, as I’m not entirely sure Democrats have super figured out how to run against a Trump-like candidate super effectively.

But OK, let’s pivot to how the media should cover Trump now that he is out of the White House. Are there thorny questions of how much coverage he should receive? Or is that neither here nor there — this is a former president we’re talking about — and if he runs in 2024, that is news.

alex: I think the answer here is pretty simple. We’d cover Trump the same way we’d cover any other former president: If he makes news, we write a story about it. (Or chat about it!) And so far, Trump is still doing that. I do think part of the reason we’re asking this question, though, is because Trump left a lasting impact on the Republican Party in a way we haven’t seen in former presidents in quite some time. Usually, former presidents stay out of the limelight for a bit. Trump has not. So I think media institutions are rightly wrestling with the question of “where do we go from here?”

lee.drutman: This is a really hard question. On the one hand, he is the former president, probably the GOP front-runner and, at the very least, a highly influential kingmaker, so what he does is news.

On the other hand, Trump has also cracked the code on how to get attention, which is to be always starting fights because the media is inherently drawn to conflict. So there is a challenge for the media to exercise some judgement and restraint. Some of what Trump does might be newsworthy, but a lot of it will just be trying to get attention for the sake of getting attention.

In fact, I’d argue that Trump is currently the GOP front-runner precisely because the media gives him a level of sustained attention that no other candidate gets.

alex: Yeah, Lee. There are now definitely questions like “is Trump just sucking oxygen out of the room since he’s not a 2024 candidate (at least not yet!), and “is the media covering him in lieu of covering other things, like certain policy issues?”

[Democrats Are Split Over How Much The Party And American Democracy Itself Are In Danger]

perry: Trump is a relevant person to cover, of course. But I am seeing outlets essentially designate reporters to cover Trump, and I think that is a mistake. We are already getting too much “sources close to Trump” style coverage. Take, for example, that there were days of coverage about his CPAC appearance before it happened on Sunday.

Trump is not the president — so I am not sure I need to read all about his musings or what his aides are saying anonymously. To me, the media is in danger of covering Trump a lot because he is interesting and clicky, but not really covering “Trumpism,” and I think the latter is more important.

We need more stories on how state and local Republicans with power are pushing the identity politics and antidemocraic tactics of Trump right now, and fewer stories speculating about which candidates Trump personally is going to endorse for elections happening 15 months from now.

“What is going on with the Repubilcan Party?” and “what is going on with Trump?” are related but distinct questions. I worry that coverage of the second is going to become basically all of the coverage of the first. Every conflict and debate in the Republican Party is not best covered through the lens of Trump.

lee.drutman: You’re absolutely right, Perry. But what is Trumpism? Is it just “owning the libs” and perpetuating the “big lie” to roll back democracy at the state level?

sarah: That’s such a good point, Perry. And a good question, Lee. I’m not sure we know yet what Trumpism is. It’s still being defined.

alex: If CPAC taught us anything, though, I would say that Trumpism definitely includes a pushback against cancel-culture “wokeness.”

lee.drutman: Yes, Alex, totally agree, and as I said earlier I think the anti-cancel culture is the perfect symbolic issue to unite the party, avoid policy fights and fundraise.

sarah: There’s definitely the risk of a dangerous feedback loop in covering Trump here, though. The last four years showed us that Trump’s antics sell, and as such, the media often covers him in an undiscerning, play-by-play manner, missing the larger stakes, as Perry pointed out.

Readers gain little from that type of coverage, so it’ll be a challenge in the next four years to make sure our coverage reflects more of the stakes and less of the Trump-specific drama.

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Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.

Alex Samuels was a politics reporter at FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Lee Drutman is a senior fellow in the Political Reform program at New America. He’s the author of the book, “Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America.”