ORLANDO — Former president Donald Trump cemented himself as a central fixture of the Republican Party’s future even as potential primary rivals made early pitches to the crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Trump easily pushed aside other possible candidates in CPAC’s informal straw poll after hinting that he'd run for the third time in 2024.
Trump topped the list with 59%, and his push to dispute the results of the 2020 election was also paramount among the conference’s attendees, with 49.1% identifying election integrity as the most important issue, according to the survey released by the organization.
“Nothing’s faded for the president,” Jim McLaughlin, a Trump campaign pollster who presented the results, said to applause from the audience gathered in Orlando on Sunday.
The four-day event attracted conservative activists from around the country, some of them draped in pro-Trump gear, but most donned something to show their patriotism. There were as many MAGA hats as you’d expect to see at a Trump rally, although some wore suits and more formal attire. Conference attendees bypassed vendors selling rhinestone-encrusted purses shaped like guns and others that read, “TRUMP.”
On Saturday night, Trump gave a forward-looking speech promising a number of changes in Washington if he is reelected and attacking President Joe Biden. “We did it twice and we’ll do it again,” Trump said to cheers. “We’re going to be doing it again a third time.”
Most attendees told BuzzFeed News that it was hard to picture the party supporting another candidate if Trump were to run for the party’s nomination.
“I feel that the popular vote and the majority of conservatives want Trump,” Gena Metrakos, 46, told BuzzFeed News. “I don't know that there's a different conservative right now who could undo all the bad stuff that's happening right now, the way Trump did.”
Larry Elder, a Trump supporter and former California gubernatorial candidate, told BuzzFeed News that the nomination is all but guaranteed to the former president. “I think if Trump wants it, he has it,” Elder said.
While a number of attendees believe Trump will likely be the party’s nominee, a portion who spoke to BuzzFeed News said there was room for another candidate in the Republican primary — even if they’re unsure how viable that candidate might be.
Zac Perry said that he thinks the party is split and there are a lot of Republicans who don't like the populist policies of Trump, but added, “If we were to come down to a primary in 2024, Trump would definitely come out on top.”
Sam Redfern, a veteran from Montana, said he and his colleagues want to see how Trump’s “kingmaker” status fares in two contentious primaries between Rep. Liz Cheney and Harriet Hageman in Wyoming and Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Kelly Tshibaka in Alaska.
“If he wins, his candidates keep winning,” Redfern 44, said. “I don't think anybody should challenge him if he decides to run. However, if Trump, President Trump, is coming off losses in the national election, losing the House, losing the Senate, and then his challenger candidates can't win in rural, veteran-heavy states or swing states, then there needs to be a vibrant, conservative movement that looks at all options.”
Among the 19 Republicans listed on the straw poll, Trump’s closest competition among conference attendees was Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who attracted slightly more than 28% of support. A majority of the candidates struggled to get more than 1%.
DeSantis, whose Thursday remarks at the conference did not mention the former president, was the clear alternative. Sixty-one percent of attendees said in another poll question that omitted Trump that they would support DeSantis's campaign in the Republican primary.
DeSantis’s meteoric rise as a national Republican figure began with his response to COVID-19 in Florida which catered to the right and his public criticism of President Joe Biden and vaccine mandates. He has been a staunch opponent of critical race theory and often touts his record of appointing conservative judges to Florida’s Supreme Court.
“I don't think DeSantis would ever step up to him,” Jennifer Scalfani of Florida said of her governor. She explained that she did see him as a potential presidential candidate, but not one in the immediate future if Trump runs.
"I think he's the best man for the job," Scalfani said of Trump. "And I think every conservative knows that. Most Republicans know it."