Ever the calculating businessman...
Donald Trump cancelled his speech before this weekend's Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC). In the past Trump has received a favorable reception at CPAC, and his abrupt cancellation disappoints the grassroots conservatives. But will it in the end matter?
Trump's decision is both strategic and tactical.
CPAC is a big-tent, but it is Establishment Conservatism. Trump's base has never been mainstream conservative but populist conservative. Trump already demonstrated, for example, that he could secure a plurality of social conservatives, even evangelicals, despite his failure to meet the litmus tests the so "Christian right" applied pre-Trump. The defection of evangelicals to Trump undercuts evangelical activism, but that's another issue.
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Instead of CPAC, Trump is going to Wichita. The Kansas caucus is tomorrow, and Kansas has a history of volatile voting, it went against the Establishment in the two past primary elections -- for insurgent Mike Huckabee over John McCain in 2008, and insurgent Rick Santorum over Mitt Romney in 2012. But now Trump is the insurgent.
Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich, in that order, are closer in traditional values to the classic heartland. But New Yorker Trump understands that he wants momentum, and another victory -- by plurality, even if narrow. Kansas provides only 40 delegates of the 2472 Republican delegates at the national convention in Cleveland. And only 22 of the 40 delegates reflect the caucus vote, the rest are bonus votes (the so-called Super Delegates).
But Trump, ever the calculating businessman, also believes marginal delegate votes could make a difference in Cleveland, if not to win the nomination on the first ballot, then to get ever closer to a majority on that first ballot, to better fight for the nomination beyond the first ballot. Already his incompetent opponents have blundered by using the pejorative "brokered convention" rather than the favorable "open convention," and by framing their movement as "stop Trump" rather than some sort of affirmation.
Tomorrow's primaries also include three other states - Kentucky, Louisiana and Maine. Sure, Trump could have reached these states, and also Kansas, by national media coverage of his speech at CPAC. But you never can tell what the reception might be like this year for him at CPAC. Cruz has strong support there. Many Carson voters are now with Cruz. It's unclear that Rand Paul supporters, who were made a lot of noise at last year's CPAC, would support Trump over Cruz. Many CPAC delegates find Rubio solid on most issues and appealing for the general election. And even Kasich has made slight inroads there. Remember that CPAC leaders have been variously close to the mainstream conservatism of National Review, which led the opposition to Trump.
CPAC leaders suggest Trump, ever the negotiator, wanted the group to give him different, if not favored, treatment. CPAC allows each candidate the same amount of time and insists on a Q&A and properly refused to change those standards. Trump wanted to skip the Q&A, perhaps because some of the questions might have been problematic. This is not a Trump rally where people can be ejected on his demand. At his rally in Wichita, Trump and his team are in full control. Plus, he is likely to draw a large crowd there, maybe even a record crowd; crowd size is his basic talking point at each event.
And Kansas is where Bob Dole is from. If Trump wins by a plurality, I'm sure he'll rebuke the 92-year-old Dole, who most recently championed Jeb Bush.
When Trump arrogantly skipped the Iowa debate, it had consequences, certainly in Iowa, where that decision - coupled with his refusal to authorize a ground game, possibly cost him a victory that in retrospect could be even more important than it seemed at the time. But most conservatives in America have barely heard of CPAC and will not be offended that Trump did not attend.
Marco Rubio criticized Trump for skipping the event, but Rubio's anti-Trump litany will otherwise remain the same at CPAC. And besides skipping CPAC for Kansas, Trump also will go to Florida, and that foray is directed more effectively at Rubio. As for CPAC, Trump's supporters there will remain with Trump. And CPAC's leadership, who privately oppose Trump, will be no more emboldened to oppose him than before.
There was a time when, at this juncture, a serious Republican candidate - a conservative -- for the presidency could not skip CPAC. Sadly for CPAC, that day - at least for Donald Trump - is gone. CPAC and other conservatives will have to ponder - if Trump is the nominee, if he is elected, will Trump indeed be independent, as he says, and also does that mean he will be independent of the conservative movement that, no matter what he might say or feel, once provided his launching pad. And will Trump continue to maintain, as he did a few weeks ago, that any conservative who opposes him is part of The Establishment?