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CPAC ’14, Frontrunner ’16?

A new direction. (Photo courtesy Gage Skidmore)

On March 6-8, conservatives from all over the country gathered at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC. Various conservative leaders addressed the crowds at a resort in Maryland to look at what is ahead for the conservative movement. Many of the speakers are considered contenders for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. During all three days of the conference, attendees participated in a straw poll to determine which leader conservatives prefer to gain the nomination. Over 20 candidates appeared on the ballot, but Sen. Rand Paul [R-Ky.] was overwhelmingly the preferred choice for the GOP nomination in 2016.

Rand Paul, who won the straw poll for the second consecutive year, finished first with 31 percent of the vote, followed by Sen. Ted Cruz [R-Tx.] in a distant second with 11 percent. An eccentric assortment of conservatives followed the two Tea Party heavyweights: former neurosurgeon and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Ben Carson earned 9 percent, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie earned 8 percent and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Rick Santorum earned 7 percent apiece.

As you can probably tell from the grab bag of candidates, the CPAC straw poll is not a serious yardstick of who has the strongest chance at winning the 2016 nomination, especially this far from primary season. However, it is a good indicator of where the conservative movement stands right now.

Rand Paul, a libertarian Tea Party favorite, has risen to national prominence over the past year following his filibuster of President Obama’s nominee for CIA director, John Brenna, and his leadership of the class-action lawsuit against the NSA’s surveillance programs.

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Rand’s father, the perennial libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul, also won the straw poll twice leading up to the 2012 nomination fight. Both are well-known for attracting younger voters to their libertarian style of politics.

A focus on personal freedom and civil liberties are Rand Paul’s political strengths. In his well-received speech at CPAC, Paul blasted President Obama on the NSA surveillance programs that collect data from cell phones, saying, “We won’t trade our liberty for security,” and, “What you do on your cell phone is none of their damn business.” With a nod to Republican resistance to new gun control laws, Paul posited, “The Fourth Amendment is just as important as the Second.” Pointing to 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney, Paul declared  it is time to stop trying to elect the lesser of two evils and time to elect men and women of principle.

Rand Paul’s positions on foreign policy are where he differentiates himself from other conservatives. Much like his father, Paul is a non-interventionist, in contrast to the hawks of the GOP establishment. In his CPAC speech, he avoided mentioning the crisis with Russia in Ukraine, a subject other speakers focused on to condemn President Obama’s approach.

On some issues, such as the Iran sanctions, Paul falls more on the side of the president than his fellow Republicans, which has led some Republicans to accuse him of being “too soft” on foreign policy. Paul, for his part, points to the words of Ronald Reagan: “Don’t mistake our reluctance for war for a lack of resolve.” In a potential presidential run, the largest reservation conservatives may have in supporting Paul is his standoffish foreign policy.

Many believe that Rand Paul is one of the strongest non-minority candidates who can reach out to new voters in a presidential election. His strong libertarianism is attractive to young people, and he has worked hard to bring minorities into the GOP fold. Paul’s belief in returning voting rights to many non-violent felons, along with his opposition to harsh drug laws and mandatory minimum sentencing are very popular among minorities, especially African-Americans and Hispanics. The combination of young, libertarian-leaning supporters and new minority supporters could create a strong base of votes should Rand Paul decide to run in 2016.

Of all the variables that will decide who receives the 2016 GOP nomination for president, one thing is clear: an election between Rand Paul and a Democratic candidate like Hillary Clinton would destroy many preconceived notions of demographic politics. Could the conservative base at CPAC have struck on a winning formula?

—Connor Kitchings is a freshman studying political science and economics

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