On Friday, Jim DeMint announced he will boycott CPAC. He joins a host of conservative organizations – including the Heritage Foundation and the Media Research Center – who have decided not to attend this year’s event and Congressman Jim Jordan, head of the conservative Republican Study Committee in the House.
For an inside the beltway conservative organization, CPAC is a place to be seen by activists – mostly students – coming in from across the country. It’s a rare chance to be face to face with members, participants or supporters of your organization – people you may only communicate with via email or phone. And because it’s such a rare chance, it costs money – lots of it. Beyond the thousands in sponsorship and/or booth rental fees, an organization has to put lots of thought and resources into making their booth stand out. Giveaway items, multimedia displays, and other amenities cost money – to say nothing of staff time.
It’s not a prohibitive or unwise investment, but it is an investment.
On the other hand, for a group with a limited budget, boycotting CPAC can separate you a bit from the crowd. Articles and blog posts about your boycott will likely get into the hands of activists who care about your issue. If you are one of hundreds of booths in CPAC’s main hall, you may not be able to cut through the noise in quite the same way.
For the politicians who don’t go, it’s also a win-win. For DeMint, who has crafted a brand as a gadfly against Republican leadership, bowing out aligns him against an inside-the-beltway professional conservative movement. For tea party activists who paint the entire Washington crowd with the same brush, DeMint and Jordan become horses of a different color.
And the reality is that the Washington, DC version of CPAC isn’t nearly as important as it was 20 years ago, before communication between outside the beltway activists became as easy as it is today. In its first decades of existence, CPAC could have helped set the conservative message for an entire year or election cycle. For conservative activists, CPAC might be a rare time to hear from Presidential hopefuls early on, before their campaign started in earnest. But this is a different time. The era of 24/7 news means campaign themes and messages for 2012 might not be set until weeks or months before – after all, who would have predicted in February of 2007 that a late financial crisis would tip the scales for Barack Obama in 2008? (In fact, who would have predicted at that time Obama would be the nominee?) The shorter news cycles have extended Presidential campaigns – meaning that 2012 contenders will be crisscrossing early target states like New Hampshire, Iowa, and South Carolina within six months. There will be no shortage of chances to hear from Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and Sarah Palin.
CPAC is still important; but in the modern media environment, it simply cannot be as important as it once was. CPAC may still be the conservative movement’s biggest stage, but it’s hardly the only stage anymore.