'American Idol' for Political Nerds Is Coming to DC This Week
Like reality TV but, with presidency in play, the stakes are a whole lot higher.
By ERIN DOOLEY
February 25, 2015, 9:00 PM
• 6 min read
-- OK, political junkies, it’s time to switch on C-SPAN: There’s a three-day-long reality show just getting started outside Washington, D.C., today.
CPAC, an annual conference sponsored by the American Conservative Union, will draw almost all of the Republican Party’s likely presidential contenders, who are given 20 minutes each to pitch their vision for America. At the end, the conference attendees, conservatives from all over the U.S., will crown the winner of the CPAC straw poll.
Sure, the contestants are a little older, the conference center venue a little blander, and the dulcet tones of Adam Lambert noticeably absent. But with the White House in play, the stakes are a whole lot higher.
Like "Idol," CPAC is essentially a big casting call, a chance for the Republican base to preview candidates’ stump speeches before the 2016 cycle officially begins.
This year’s headliners include almost all of the 2016 contenders, including Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Rick Santorum. (Real estate mogul Donald Trump, who always seems to be eyeing the White House, will also speak, as will Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre.)
The highest-profile CPAC speakers will meet a fan base almost as vociferous as Carrie Underwood’s following -- and the CPAC fans often dress in costume. From now through Saturday, the Gaylord Convention Center will play host to a cadre of Uncle Sams, George Washingtons and Ronald Reagans -- plus a hoard of college kids wearing elephant ties and kissing cardboard cutouts of Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.
Of course, not every presidential wannabe makes it to the glitchy WiFi -- ahem, glitz and glamour -- of CPAC. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, thought to be mulling a 2016 bid, is skipping the conference, heading instead to Tennessee and South Carolina.
Other party bigwigs -- most notably House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell -- are also opting out. Both offices cite scheduling conflicts.
Remember watching "Idol" contestants squirm under Simon Cowell’s skeptical eye?
That’s basically the feeling you’ll get when you see Fox News’ Sean Hannity question former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush about common core curriculum standards onstage at CPAC.
Bush, whose recent speeches in Chicago and Detroit fell decidedly flat, has decided to forgo the formal speech entirely, opting instead for a 20-minute Q&A. He’s excelled at the format in the past -- but pundits are waiting to see how he’ll do when confronted with controversial issues, like his support for common core and immigration, at CPAC.
And The Winner Is ...
You can’t text in your vote (the ACU isn’t quite as hip as Ryan Seacrest) but just as at "Idol," audience participation is encouraged at CPAC.
The grand finale is the straw poll reveal Saturday evening -- the results of an informal ballot asking attendees who they’d vote for to be president.
Last year, Sen. Rand Paul won handily, garnering 31 percent of the vote, a full 20 points ahead of the first runner-up, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
The straw poll doesn’t necessarily mean much -- only a few CPAC straw poll winners have gone on to become the party’s nominee -- but it can help demonstrate momentum and attract bundlers, crucial in the early stages of campaign fundraising.
Spoiler: The straw poll winner doesn’t sing a victory song -- though we’d like to hear Chris Christie belt out a Springsteen tune or two. ...