The conference was founded in 1973 by the American Conservative Union and Young Americans for Freedom as a small gathering of dedicated conservatives. Over the years it has grown to thousands of attendees annually. Roughly half of those in attendance in the past few years have been college-aged.
CPAC has featured "groups at odds with conservative orthodoxy in years past—including the American Civil Liberties Union," and, more recently, the gay Republican group GOProud, which has attracted major controversy.
In 2009, Romney won the straw poll for the third consecutive year, while Bobby Jindal finished second. Conservative radio show host Rush Limbaugh gave the keynote address in which he urged conservatives to "take back the nation" after the election of Barack Obama.
Television and radio host Glenn Beck delivering the keynote address at CPAC 2010.
In 2010, the conference was opened by Marco Rubio, a candidate for the U.S. Senate from Florida that year, and closed by conservative commentator Glenn Beck. In his keynote address Beck denounced progressivism, calling it "a disease in America." The Ronald Reagan Award was given to the Tea Party movement, which marked the first time it was ever given to a group instead of an individual. The 2010 conference marked the first year in which one of the co-sponsoring groups was the John Birch Society. The 2010 conference also featured co-sponsorship by a gay Republican organization called GOProud. In response, some groups, such as Focus on the Family, made threats to leave the conference, but none actually did so.Rep.Ron Paul won the straw poll for the first time.
A so-called "conservative civil war" marked the 2011 conference because of another controversy over the participation of GOProud. Numerous prominent organizations, including the Heritage Foundation, Family Research Council, the American Family Association, and the Media Research Council, among others, joined a boycott organized by the American Principles Project, which said GOProud stood in "diametrical opposition" to core principles of the conservative movement. Senator Jim DeMint also announced he was boycotting the conference. Those boycotting the conference also pointed to alleged financial mismanagement by the ACU and the invitation issued to Governor of IndianaMitch Daniels, who had called for a "truce" on social issues, to be the keynote speaker.Mike Huckabee declined to attend the 2010 and 2011 conferences, citing his concern that, because of the inclusion of GOProud and Ron Paul's victory in the 2010 and 2011 straw polls, CPAC is turning libertarian. Some conservative figures were moving to turn the more recently created Values Voter Summit into a "full-fledged rival to CPAC" by expanding its social issues focus to include economic and security issues.
For the 2012 conference, the ACU board voted to not invite GOProud or the John Birch Society to the 2012 conference. Ron Paul declined an invitation at CPAC 2012 in favor of campaigning in Maine. CPAC organizers sought to increase participation in the straw poll in an attempt to give a candidate other than Paul a chance to win by moving from paper ballots to electronic voting that remained open until the last day of the conference after all the candidates had spoken, as opposed to the afternoon of the second day of the conference in years prior. The presence of Paul supporters was significantly less at CPAC 2012. Mitt Romney won the 2012 straw poll with 38%, beating out Rick Santorum, who placed second with 31%.Newt Gingrich came in third with 15% and Paul was fourth with 12%. However, Politico reported that an unnamed source said that Romney campaign bought CPAC registrations to ensure their victory at the straw poll and The New York Times said the campaign had bused in students from along the East Coast to vote in the straw poll. Santorum replied on CNN by saying that he does not "try to rig straw polls" and "talk to the Romney campaign and [see] how many tickets they bought. We've heard all sorts of things."
In 2014, Rand Paul won the straw poll with 31% of the vote, nearly triple the amount won by Ted Cruz, who finished in second, with only 11%.
The annual CPAC straw poll vote traditionally serves as a barometer for the feelings of the conservative movement. During the conference, attendees are encouraged to fill out a survey that asks questions on a variety of issues. The questions regarding the most popular possible presidential candidates are the most widely reported. One component of CPAC is evaluating conservative candidates for president, and the straw poll serves generally to quantify conservative opinion.
Overall, Mitt Romney holds the record of winning more CPAC straw polls than any other individual, with 4. Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp follow with 3 consecutive wins each, followed by Ron and Rand Paul with 2 each. Of these five, the Pauls are the only two to win more than one straw poll, yet never appear on a Republican presidential ticket in any election.
Every year there are several awards given to notable conservatives. Although the exact lineup of awards varies, five awards are usually presented:
The Ronald Reagan Award is the highest award given at CPAC. It is awarded to dedicated activists, regardless of how high their profile may be on a national scale. ACU director David Keene described the award in 2008: "The winners of this award, our highest honor, are not household names, but the men and women working in the trenches who sacrifice and, in so doing, set an example for others." This award is different from the Ronald Reagan Freedom Award, which is not affiliated with CPAC.
The Jeane Kirkpatrick Academic Freedom Award is presented annually in honor of Jeane Kirkpatrick. Kirkpatrick was affiliated with the American Conservative Union for many years.
Defender of the Constitution Award
The Blogger of the Year Award is given to a leading conservative member of the blogosphere.
The Charlton Heston Courage Under Fire Award is named after the late actor and political activist Charlton Heston.
^Reagan went even farther in his book of speeches: "I went to these Conservative Political Action Conference events almost every year I was president. I attended before I was president, too. These were my people, the people who had labored for the conservative cause when it seemed like a hopeless endeavor.... They were the people who persevered, and I can't tell you how much I admire them for their tenacity and their hope."
^"Republican Right Wing Gathers To Bash Clinton, Look to 1996 Conservatives meet in record numbers to find that there is life - and echoes of past unity - after the presidency". The Christian Science Monitor. 22 February 1993. ISSN0882-7729.