Former US president Donald Trump’s supporters are touting his victory in the Conservative Political Action Conference straw poll as yet more proof that their man is unstoppable. History, however, suggests otherwise.
It’s true that Trump demolished his closest competitor, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, by a whopping 62-20 margin. One might quibble by noting that this year’s CPAC was much smaller than previous versions, suggesting that it drew only the truest of true Trump believers.
Still, a 42 percentage point lead over a man who often defeats Trump in national surveys of Republican primary voters is nothing to sneeze at.
Trump’s CPAC speech
In fact, however, this seemingly good news is a historic harbinger of defeat. The CPAC straw poll has been conducted regularly for decades. The winner of the poll conducted in the year just before a presidential election in which there is no Republican incumbent has always gone on to lose the primary contest.
Some losers do well before they drop out - take Jack Kemp in 1987 and Mitt Romney in 2007. Others become answers to trivia questions, like Phil Gramm in 1995 and Gary Bauer in 1999.
Throw in the Paul family’s quick washouts after winning the poll in 2011 (Ron) and 2015 (Rand), and the CPAC pre-election year straw poll has a perfect record in prognosticating primary defeat by the time the actual voting begins.
Perhaps past won’t be prologue. But Trump’s CPAC speech and a brief video announcing a new policy agenda gave his foes a lot of targets to shoot at.
His bizarre video started with an announcement that his next administration would promote building 10 “Freedom Cities.” Since roughly a third of the land mass of the United States is owned by the federal government, Trump said, it was time to start building “new cities in America again” - and apparently putting the federal government in charge of nationwide municipal planning and development.
Do conservatives really want that? Not to mention that most of that federal land is in Alaska or the Western wilderness - not necessarily the top places Americans want to move to.
Trump is not Gingrich
DeSantis in particular should have a field day ripping into Trump’s proposal. Florida was the fastest-growing state last year for the first time since 1957. Private developers have been building new cities there for decades without federal subsidies or planning. They have been doing this because people and businesses want to live there.
Previously Newt Gingrich surprised many by beating presumed front-runner Romney in the 2012 South Carolina primary. The two then went to face off in Florida, with the winner expected to cement his top-dog status.
Gingrich chose that period to tell Floridians on the Space Coast that he would establish a permanent colony on the moon during his presidency.
Gingrich’s grand vision became an immediate staple of comedy routines. Romney attacked the idea in the Florida presidential debate and Gingrich plummeted in subsequent polls. He lost the Florida primary by nearly 15 points and never recovered.
Trump is not Gingrich, and the past few years have shown the former president’s core supporters will tolerate a lot of loony ideas, maybe even flying cars. But holding on to the type of people who would travel hundreds of miles and pay hundreds of dollars to hear him at CPAC is not his challenge.
Trump’s challenge is holding on to the less devoted, the people who still like him but aren’t 100-percent sold. DeSantis has the opportunity to convince people that he’s a calmer, more electable version of Trump.
Writing Trump’s political obituary is a fool’s errand. CPAC 2023 might in hindsight be Trump’s high-water mark rather than his launchpad.
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Thomas W. Smith distinguished scholar in residence at Arizona State University