Despite some signs that Donald Trump’s influence might be waning, the former president’s prominence at the Conservative Political Action Conference this weekend signals that he’s still the most dominant force in the GOP by a huge margin.
In CPAC’s famous annual straw poll, 59 percent of attendees said they would vote for Trump if the 2024 Republican primary were held today. That’s 4 points higher than he received at the convention last year.
Trump’s position is still likely to be very intimidating to most other potential 2024 GOP hopefuls.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis came in second in the poll, with the support of 28 percent of attendees, which is 7 points higher than he received the previous year.
There was no serious other competition — Trump’s former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in third place with …. 2 percent support.
The CPAC straw poll is not scientific, and it represents the view of a select set of GOP activists and influencers rather than the Republican electorate as a whole. But it serves as a useful data point for understanding the direction of the party, and the orientation of its grassroots energy. And the survey suggests that, despite being out of office and lacking a real social media presence that allows him to influence the news cycle, Trump is still very much the most powerful Republican politico in the country. Should he ultimately make a 2024 bid in this kind of environment, many potential challengers will be tempted to get behind him rather than compete against him.
It’s not just the straw poll. As Politico reported, Trump had an outsize presence at CPAC as a speaker, as well:
Inside the confines of CPAC — a conference that provides a pulse read for the conservative movement — there was little sense that the former president was anything other than the center of attention. The cavernous ballroom was, for the first time all weekend, completely full when Trump took the stage to roaring cheers on Saturday night.
In their appearances in Orlando, Trump’s potential 2024 rivals — or successors — were careful to read the mood of the conference. They made sure to offer their support for Trump administration policies and avoid signaling too much ambition, for fear of alienating Trump’s base — or drawing the former president’s wrath. DeSantis notably did not mention Trump’s name in his speech.
Trump’s stature at CPAC seems broadly in line with polling data on Republican voters. According to a recent CNN survey, half of Republican and Republican-leaning voters still want the GOP to nominate Trump for president again, and even among those who don’t want him to be nominated again, most aren’t specifically opposed to seeing him as president once more (although they are concerned about issues such as electability or how polarizing he is).
None of this means that Trump is invincible. Some of his endorsements for Congress, like in Tennessee, have caused sharp pushback from his own base. DeSantis’ rise in the eyes of Republicans across the nation seems to be substantial and enduring. And without political office and social media, Trump might be cut off from shaping and interpreting real-time responses on potentially divisive issues within his party, such as vaccines or Russia, that might help him suss out where to stand on new hot-button issues in the run-up to a primary. That makes him more vulnerable.
For now, though, Trump’s position is still likely to be very intimidating to most other potential 2024 GOP hopefuls. He's still reaping benefits from building a base of supporters who not only like his ideas, but also the idea of him specifically as a leader.