Donald Trump’s decision to skip the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) here—a major gamble, and potentially a huge mistake—comes right as he’s aiming to unite conservatives movement-wide behind his campaign.
This move may jeopardize potential unity soon in the movement, even as signs of people getting behind him were beginning to show here.
“He spoke before I was chairman and the crowd always loves him,” American Conservative Union (ACU) chairman Matt Schlapp said in an interview with Breitbart News before Trump canceled. “He didn’t do great in the straw poll last year. My guess is he’ll do really well in the straw poll this year.”
Schlapp was even at that point defending Trump from former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP nominee who did appear at CPAC.
“I think it’s a pivotal moment,” Schlapp told Breitbart News when asked about the importance of CPAC as it relates to the presidential campaign.
I don’t know whether there’s weeks or months left in this race, before we really have a consensus nominee. But it’s time for everybody to do everything they can to get their candidate. Waiting seems unwise. I saw what Gov. Romney did today and I thought if you felt that much passion about this, you know Donald Trump’s the same guy as he was the day he got into this race. Nobody took him seriously. I think they thought he would just fall away but I think they’ve seen the opposite. I think the message they’ve taken from voters is now it’s a big threat they now have to stop. Part of me says great, go for it—this is America, do what you believe and leave it all on the field. Part of my brain says why? What’s the rationale for this.
Trump announced—as did CPAC, which is hosted by the ACU just outside Washington, D.C. annually—on Friday morning that he’s pulling out of the event. The announcement came after a contentious debate in Detroit on Thursday evening. The exchange on H-1B visas had him rattled, and saying on stage that he’s “changed” his viewpoint on the matter. After the debate, Trump blasted out a press release stating that he hadn’t changed his viewpoint.
CPAC Tweeted on Friday that they are “very disappointed” Trump “has decided at the last minute to drop out of” the event. “His choice sends a clear message to conservatives,” the conference Tweeted.
— CPAC (@CPAC) March 4, 2016
Trump’s campaign also issued a statement, saying he’s instead focusing on shoring up votes ahead of the Kansas caucuses on Saturday by holding a rally in Wichita.
The Donald J. Trump for President Campaign has just announced it will be in Witchita, Kanasas for a major rally on Saturday prior to Caucus,” the Trump campaign said. “He will also be speaking at the Kansas Caucus and then departing for Orlando, Florida and a crowd of approximately 20,000 people or more. Because of this, he will not be able to speak at CPAC as he has done for many consecutive years. Mr. Trump would like to thank Matt Schlapp and all of the executives at CPAC and looks forward to returning to next year, hopefully as President of the United States.
Newt Gingrich, a 2012 GOP presidential candidate and the former U.S. House Speaker, said on Twitter that Trump was “right.”
“Trump was right to skip CPAC,” Gingrich said. “The votes are in Kansas not Washington. Why give the anti-trump activists a target.”
Trump was right to skip CPAC. The votes are in Kansas not Washington. Why give the anti-trump activists a target
— Newt Gingrich (@newtgingrich) March 4, 2016
While Gingrich might be right about that point about where the votes are, Trump no-showing at the largest annual conservative movement event—one Ronald Reagan, the former president, attended 13 times—may hurt his ability to unite that movement behind his campaign, something he made clear he knows he has to do to win the general election during his post-Super Tuesday press conference.
Since Trump is and always has been a brute force populist nationalist—and not a movement conservative—the crowd that gathers here at CPAC from the traditional conservative movement has naturally been skeptical of his political rise. Sens. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Trump’s chief competitors, are both appearing here as is Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Each of them has sought to spread and push that skepticism of Trump’s nationalism among movement conservatives in 2016, probably one of the biggest obstacles holding Trump back from total and complete domination in elections.
Read more: Breitbart