NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) walked out on Gov. Jeb Bush's appearance on Friday, but the walkout ended up being smaller and less noticeable than many wanted.
Dozens of vocal Rand Paul supporters streamed out of the ballroom as Bush took the stage, led by William Temple, an activist who often appears at tea party and conservative events in colonial garb and holds a large "Don't Tread on Me" flag. But they didn't succeed in emptying the ballroom, or even making a noticeable dent in the crowd.
The walkout was loosely organized and some activists made their minds up on the spot to participate. Temple had announced plans to lead a walkout yesterday. "I don't know if I want to stay and contribute to the booing, or walk out," one Rand Paul supporter said as Bush started speaking. As activists streamed out, they were followed by reporters whose numbers nearly matched the protesters, and Temple even gave an impromptu press conference, surrounded by cameras.
One activist, a 21-year-old Rand Paul supporter and Penn State student named Tyler, told BuzzFeed News that Young Americans for Liberty had helped spread the word about the walkout.
The group, which has helped organize Paul supporters to come to CPAC, said they hadn't had anything to do with it and played down the protest.
"Contrary to what you were told, YAL was not involved with organizing the walk-out during Jeb Bush's speech," YAL Director of Events Lauren Evans said. "On the contrary, we as always encouraged our members to be respectful to the former governor and all speakers at CPAC. In fact, the sheer number of YAL members at CPAC this year is a major reason why the walk-out was mostly a nonevent."
Participants acknowledged that they thought the exodus would be bigger. The Paul family has traditionally had CPAC well-wired, with Ron Paul routinely winning the straw poll in past years and Rand Paul winning it the last two years in a row.
"Honestly, yeah, I did think it would be a bigger walkout," said Michael Przybyl, 22, a UNC student and Paul supporter. "There's a surprising number of Jeb Bush supporters here, much more than I thought there would be." (Bush's PAC, Right to Rise, bused in supporters from Washington.)
"I think there's a lot of people here and some people just wanted to organize and walk out on Jeb Bush and felt like it would make a statement," Przybyl said. "I think it did."
"People were just, like, going around telling us about it," said Charles Barr, 20. "We didn't know the guy with the flag was like the leader of it."
"It was like, I guess we're following him," said his friend, Mike Battey, 21.
"I assumed it was going to be bigger than it was but at the same time I feel that the status quo with anything, people are kind of — I don't think everyone who came out for Rand Paul came in to walk out," Barr said. "Also it was off schedule too for some reason."
Regardless, the pro-Paul protesters are entrenched in their opposition to Bush, who they view as a symbol of everything they hate.
Asked what Bush would have to do to win his vote, Battey said, "totally revamp every single position on everything he has." Both said that if Bush is the Republican nominee, they will vote third party.