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CPAC Is Useful and Overrated

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Here's what you need to know about CPAC, the big yearly conservative gathering going on now near Washington.

First, why we should pay attention:

CPAC -- for Conservative Political Action Conference -- is a visible part of the “invisible primary,” the process preceding primaries and caucuses in which the Republican Party's actors compete over and coordinate on the presidential nomination. Those groups are out in force at CPAC. They listen to speeches by the candidates and interact with them in small groups. Perhaps even more important, they mingle with one another, passing along what will then become conventional wisdom in the party about the candidates.

It isn't just about the candidates. Those attending are sounding one another out about policies that are important to various party groups. For example, is opposition to Common Core just a nice applause line, or will Jeb Bush and others who dissent on that one be in big trouble? Will Christian conservatives still demand that candidates vocally oppose marriage equality, or can the party begin to slowly walk away from its old position? These decisions on policy will eventually determine what the party's nominee will campaign on and how he will govern -- and eliminate those candidates who can’t fit inside the party coalition.

What makes CPAC overrated:

The straw poll always gets attention, but as experienced observers were tweeting all morning, it’s pretty much meaningless.

As for the event itself, the press is biased in favor of covering anything in or near Washington and New York. They’re also likely to overestimate the influence of national party actors (wherever their home base is) and overlook the importance of state and local party actors. CPAC is oriented toward the national party, especially in the most visible portions of the conference, so the conference is sometimes treated more seriously than it deserves to be.

But overall, gatherings such as this during the invisible-primary period can help parties organize themselves, including moving toward resolving contested nominations. So even if the  flood of attention for CPAC seems too much, it's worth paying attention. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net