Starting with a new-look straw poll, CPAC's director has some big changes in store for the annual gathering of conservative activists.
Christopher Malagisi is the director of the ACU’s Conservative Political Action Conference, now the most influential annual gathering of grassroots conservative activists. Malagisi is also president of the D.C.-based Young Conservatives Coalition.
C&E: So what brought you to politics and to Washington, D.C.?
Malagisi: Both sets of my grandparents came over from Communist Greece so they could have a better life for their families. For me, politics was something everyone always talked about at the dinner table. It was never considered rude; it was just common in my family to talk about it. So it started early for me. I’m originally from Buffalo, NY and my first internship was with then- Congressman Bill Paxon. He offered to nominate me for the Congressional page program—this was pre-Mark Foley, of course. Kidding. But I went there the summer after my junior year of high school and fell in love with D.C.
C&E: Ever given any thought to the consulting side of the business?
Malagisi: I’m really more of an activist than anything else. I drink the Kool-Aid on this stuff and I still believe there’s a lot you can do through grassroots action. At the end of the day, I still feel like I’m part of something bigger than myself. Sometimes in the private sector you’re kind of a spoke in the wheel, but when you’re focused on things that are grassroots oriented you can actually get right in the thick of it.
C&E: What can we expect from CPAC next year that’s different than what we’ve seen in the past?
Malagisi: I’ve been going to CPAC for the past seven years. I’ve been there as a student, a professional and a speaker. One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that the event has grown so big, so fast that it has drifted a little bit from what we call the three p’s. That’s what really makes CPAC—the discussions about the philosophy, the politics and the policy. So what we’re trying to do is have more of a thematic core to it next year where the speakers and the panels are derived from the theme, rather than the other way around. Also, the traditional setup has been those long tables that extend across the stage and then the podium that sort of boxes the speaker in. We’re moving that out and instead we’ll have a stage that extends into the audience so it has a more user-friendly participatory feel to it. We’re also changing up the format a bit and instead of the traditional rubber chicken dinner, the banquet will have more of a White House Correspondents’ dinner feel. It all just updates the feel of the event in a way that we think will give the message greater impact.
C&E: How much does a contested GOP primary play into that?
Malagisi: All the presidential candidates are invited to participate obviously. Usually in presidential election years there’s a huge bump in attendance. People want to hear from their candidates. But we’ve decided to start a little earlier than we normally do, because we want to make sure there’s still a good race going on. We thought that doing it a little earlier could provide that excitement, especially with the presidential straw poll we do. Next to the Iowa straw poll, this is the straw poll of the straw polls for conservative movement conferences. It’s a good barometer of where conservatives are leaning.
C&E: Has it really been a good barometer with Ron Paul supporters just overwhelming it the past two years?
Malagisi: Well, they’ve obviously done a lot of that in other straw polls around the country. But we’re actually taking the straw poll to the next level and professionalizing it even more for next year. Pollster Tony Fabrizio has come up with an electronic straw poll system. We’re going to set up a straw poll room with individual kiosks and laptops where people can vote. Attendees will be given an alphanumeric username and password that only they can use. At the conference they can go in and vote that way, or they can use their smartphones or iPads to vote.
C&E: So the thinking is that technology just opens up the process more?
Malagisi: This just professionalizes the process and we think it allows more people to participate. Sometimes the line to vote in the straw poll is unbelievably long. We can also get results a lot faster, which means people will have more time to vote. Last year, we stopped voting around late Friday afternoon and a lot of people were disappointed because they couldn’t get there until Saturday. Now, we can do this through most of the day Saturday and the results take only about half an hour to tabulate. Any campaign that has called us, we’ve strongly encouraged them to make sure they attend and bring their people.
C&E: Why all the changes?
Malagisi: Well, there’s still a secret sauce that makes this work. We want to keep it conservative, but at the same time so much has changed in the way we run campaigns and the way we think about campaigns that we have to evolve, too. If we think back to 2004, blogs were the big thing. In 2008, it was new media. Next year, it’s going to be all about smartphones and mobile technology. We want to keep up with that. So we’re going to have a comprehensive new media operation really for the first time ever. We’ve never had a Twitter platform to keep people involved and informed about all the different panel discussions. Not many conservative conferences have used this yet, but we’re going to be using Foursquare, which is made for an event like this. It’s just taking CPAC and bringing it into the 21st Century a little bit.
C&E: How about training? How do you turn activists into organizers in a way that can benefit campaigns?
Malagisi: We’ve got a few major things we’re doing geared toward that. First, we have comprehensive grassroots and political technology trainings throughout the entire weekend. We’ll have folks from Facebook there to talk about social networking and how activists and campaigns can utilize it. We’re trying to focus on some underutilized technologies, too. The idea of using Foursquare, which is something not a lot of people or campaigns have been using just yet. We want to make sure activists are aware of all this technology and understand how to use it so that when they volunteer or work on campaigns, they can actually put it to some good use. Same thing with Twitter—how can we use that to not only brand conservatism but to get the message out in ways we haven’t in the past?
C&E: What’s the status of GOProud, the gay conservative group, moving forward?
Malagisi: Every year the ACU (American Conservative Union) board reevaluates who is allowed to participate. For the last two years, the board has allowed GOProud to participate, but they decided that due to some of the public statements they had made against some of our board members that we wanted to promote a forum of civility. So the ACU board decided to not invite them. For the future, the board will decide that, but ACU and CPAC is the home for conservatives—economic, social and defense. If you believe in all three of those then we call you a fusionist conservative, but not everyone is a fusionist conservative. Even if we have different emphases, we should be civil and this should be the one place we all feel comfortable to come and debate.