The attendees of 2016’s Conservative Political Action Conference are not particularly surprised that Donald Trump has chosen to drop out of his scheduled speaking slot on Saturday amid rumors that protesting conferencegoers might walk out of his speech.
“Interestingly enough, and this is just a coincidence, my son said last night, ‘[Trump]’ll skip,’ ” Steve Stechschulte, director of the Ohio chapter of the Convention of States, told me at CPAC on Friday shortly after it was announced that Trump was skipping. “He predicted it. Because of the walkout thing.”
The Trump campaign announced midday Friday that it would be adding an event in Wichita, Kansas, prior to that state’s Saturday caucus before departing for Orlando, Florida. “Because of this,” Trump’s campaign said, “he will not be able to speak at CPAC as he has done for many consecutive years.”
There had indeed been chatter of a conservative walkout during Trump’s speech on Saturday. William Temple, a fixture at conservative conferences who dresses in Revolutionary War costumes and, as he told my colleague Michelle Goldberg on Thursday, considers Trump a “Mussolini-like figure,” was going to lead the charge. Temple did the same during Jeb Bush’s speech at CPAC 2015. The Bush walkout was not especially noticeable, though, and this one might not have been any splashier. One can’t imagine that paying customers, many of whom traveled great distances, would have wanted to skip out on a typically entertaining Trump show en masse, no matter how nauseating the prospect of him as their standard-bearer would have been.
One group of college students from Miami University of Ohio were totally bummed. “For real?” they said when I broke the news, as we were waiting in a hallway logjam ahead of Gov. John Kasich’s speech. Only one of the five was seriously considering him as a candidate, but they all “definitely wanted to see his speech.” Sam Holdeman, director of the Michigan College Republicans, was similarly disappointed that Trump couldn’t come out. “There’s a lot of young millennials here, so I feel like it would be a great opportunity to really get involved with all the young kids. So I don’t know why he skipped out, I really don’t. I think it’s very unfortunate.” He similarly chalked it up to the possibility of a walkout or “large booing.”
Saul Anuzis, the former head of the Michigan Republican Party who twice ran for chairman of the Republican National Committee, is a Cruz supporter and naturally didn’t think much of Trump’s decision to flee to Kansas. “You’ve got an outsider like Trump, who’s a populist who’s switched on a lot of positions that people are concerned about, so they want to learn more,” Anuzis said. “And the fact that he’s not willing to show up and address the pre-eminent conservative group in America, right in the middle of primary season, I think is a horrible sign.” He added cheekily that Trump’s mistake, of course, was “good for us,” meaning Cruz. After I finished speaking with Anuzis, Cruz’s chief of staff, Paul Teller, slipped me his card but didn’t have anything else to add. Anuzis “said it perfectly,” he laughed.
Winning the support of movement conservatives isn’t as central to Trump’s success as it is to Cruz’s hopes for slowing that success. To skip CPAC in the middle of a contentious presidential primary would be a major impediment to most Republican presidential candidates’ chances, but the strength of Trump’s coalition rests with disaffected white, working-class voters, not the sort of ideological conservatives who demand their candidates be able to quote Friedman and Hayek off the top of their heads. As Stechschulte said, there’s no way that skipping CPAC—and the general impression that Trump is hiding from the conservative grassroots—is going to matter to his “rock-ribbed supporters.”
Michael Navjar, sporting a red “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” cap and a T-shirt bearing the flag of Texas, was one of the few truly dedicated Trump supporters I’ve talked to at CPAC. I broke the news to him that Trump had canceled his appearance. Was he upset? Absolutely—at CPAC. “It’s CPAC’s fault,” Navjar said. If they couldn’t stop the walkout from happening, “why should he [come]?” Navjar seemed to believe that there was some serious foul play going down against Trump at CPAC. He pulled up a photo on his phone of a red-and-blue bumper sticker that read “Make America Great Again”—but in support of Ted Cruz’s campaign. How are “they,” whoever they are, allowed to steal Trump’s slogan? It’s just a set-up here, he said.