By Osita Nwanevu
At CPAC, the ex-president showed he has no intention of quitting the GOP. But are party insiders and conservative activists equally committed?
Ten years ago, Donald Trump gave a speech at CPAC that electrified his fans and teased a future run for the presidency. On Sunday, he did it again. An extraordinary decade in American politics and American life perfectly bookended. Somehow, despite all that’s happened, we’re back where we started—wondering what Trump will do next.
But it’s the wrong question, and Trump knows it. His rise as a political figure depended first upon Republican ambivalence and then upon their willingness to embrace and stand by him as a candidate and as president. Now that he’s cost them Congress and the White House and given the party further reason to abandon him, the real question is what Republicans will do with Trump.
There was speculation in January that Trump might settle the matter by starting another party. But this was always fairly unlikely. A Trump party would lose a lot of races, and beyond the damage those defeats would do to his personal pride, Trump must also understand by now that a failed electoral project would only marginalize and weaken him further. So it shouldn’t have been a surprise that he dedicated the first few minutes of his CPAC speech to shutting that talk down.
“That was fake news,” he said. “Wouldn’t that be brilliant? Let’s start a new party, and let’s divide our vote so that you can never win. No, we’re not interested in that. Mr. McLaughlin just gave me numbers that nobody’s ever heard of before, more popular than anybody.”
Speaking of numbers, Trump won CPAC’s straw poll of potential presidential contenders for the very first time this weekend, taking 55 percent of the vote. By comparison, Cruz notched a first-place win in 2016 with 40 percent of the vote (Trump came in third with 15), and Mitt Romney narrowly beat then-Senator Rick Santorum with 38 percent in 2012.
But Trump is still pulling north of 80 percent favorability among Republican voters, while only 68 percent of CPAC’s attendees believed he should even run again. Taken together, the results are another sign that Republican activists and connected politicos—the types that flock to CPAC every year—are less sure the party needs him than the party’s voters are.