As the Conservative Political Action Conference winds down, pundits and conservatives alike are in a buzz about the candidate who “won” the conference.
Kentucky Senator Rand Paul won the conference’s straw poll for the third year in a row, but many are touting Governors Jeb Bush and Scott Walker as the true winners of the weekend — all thanks to their performance.
So how could one Republican politician beat the other in front of a group of hard-core conservatives?
Performance — just like Alexander said in his book, The Performance of Politics: Obama’s Victory and the Democratic Struggle for Power.
“The struggle for power becomes theatrical. Candidates work to present compelling performances of civil competence to citizen audiences at a remove not only geographically but also emotionally and morally. It is the success of these performances that determines how whites, blacks, Jews, Catholics, and women distribute their precious votes, and the opinions of these supposedly demographic groups shift significantly in response to coding, narrative, tone, metaphor, setting, and performance in the course of campaign time,” Alexander wrote (Alexander, pg. 9).
CPAC is a great case study in Alexander’s theory that the performance makes the campaign. At CPAC, all those speaking are conservatives. All those listening are conservatives — though, to be fair, they do tend to be younger and slightly more libertarian than the Republican Party as a whole. However, it is also safe to assume that the attendees of CPAC would be reasonably more satisfied with any of the politicians who spoke at the event beating the Democratic nominee for President in 2016.
So when it comes down to who “wins” CPAC, the performance is one of the biggest things separating the players.
For the third year in a row, Paul won the straw poll, but Governor Scott Walker came in second by only four points, according to CNN.
“But the biggest winner of the straw poll was perhaps Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who catapulted from fifth last year to second place this year and came in just four points behind Paul, with 21.4% support. He delivered one of the conference’s best-received speeches, laying out his vision for the economy and drawing enthusiastic applause that overshadowed a tone-deaf answer he gave on foreign policy,” CNN’s Alexandra Jaffe wrote.
Walker’s performance at the event was well received, to say the least. National Review’s Andrew Johnson wrote that Walker “hit all the right notes” and that the “auditorium filled to capacity alongside the walls.
“Before Walker wrapped up, the crowd briefly erupted into a chant of ‘run, Scott, run’ when talk on stage turned to 2016,” Johnson wrote in his February 26 article, Walker Thrills a Packed House at CPAC.
Building off of momentum that he had gained in the last few weeks, Walker worked his already supportive audience and whipped them into a frenzy by talking up his right-to-work legislation in Wisconsin and criticizing Obama for being soft on ISIS.
Bush, on the other hand, walked into a much more hostile environment that Walker. Protestors vowed to walk out when the Florida governor came to the stage and he was met with boo-ing from the crowd.
However, even the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza said, “CPAC is a win for Bush.”
Cillizza credited Bush’s better-than-expected performance as his campaign’s reason to celebrate after his time on stage. He said Bush was energetic, informed, and refused to back down on positions he knew would be unpopular.
“Bush was, by far, the best that I’ve seen him in his just-started presidential campaign. Gone was the somewhat-bumbling, uncertain speech-giver,” Cillizza wrote. “In its place was a politician of conviction who had total command of who he was and what he believed.”
Cillizza was not complementing Bush’s policy positions or actions as governor in his February 27 piece Jeb Bush was very, very good at CPAC today. Rather, he was complementing a performance that was unexpectedly well done and effective because of the strategies Bush’s team employed.
Cillizza seemingly agrees with Alexander when he writes, “Good luck, smart organization, and a solid performance in the face of adversity is what successful presidential campaigns are built on.”
Alexander’s spends an entire book proving the importance of performance — and a little good luck and smart organizing — to campaigns. Walker and Bush proved it in one performance.
Alexander, Jeffrey C. The Performance of Politics: Obama’s Victory and the Democratic Struggle for Power. New York: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.