At CPAC 'boot camp,' learning from the Left

CPAC: What is it?
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CPAC: What is it? 01:14

National Harbor, Maryland (CNN)In a tightly packed room at the Conservative Political Action Conference, more than a hundred conservatives sat down in rows or leaned against the walls to hear a half-dozen political operatives teach the basics of their trade and share one hard truth: the Left is a whole lot better at modern campaigning.

While 2016 hopefuls flocked to the National Harbor, Maryland, confab on Thursday, aspiring activists listened attentively the day before as conservative operatives extolled the work of people who would only be blamed and blasted at any other time during the conference. Barack Obama and his 2012 campaign chief tech officer Harper Reed. Obama's campaign operatives and volunteers. The socialist organizer Saul Alinsky.
"I disagree with the Left on their policy ideas, but on their organizing and training...I swipe their ideas all the time," said Ned Ryun, founder and CEO of American Majority, a group aimed at training conservative activists in grassroots and campaign organizing.
But Ryun and his American Majority colleagues are neither dwelling on nor shying away from the fact that Democrats and progressive activists have outpaced their rivals on the right in areas ranging from get-out-the-vote efforts to social media and data collection.
    Instead, they're taking notes and sharing them with conservative activists who are ready to win the next election, whether at the federal, state or local level.
    And CPAC could be the ideal time to move the needle, with thousands of some of the most enthusiastic, animated and often young conservatives gathered to fire each other up and get inspired by the high-profile politicians and would-be-candidates who are the main attraction.
    So when Ryun joined last year the board of the American Conservative Union, which organizes CPAC, he says he "started beating the drum from day one" that CPAC should also be a venue to train activists and would-be campaign managers. Matt Schlapp, first-year chairman of the ACU, was quickly on board.
    "If you like their ideas and they have a compelling message, what are you actually going to do to make them successful?" Ryun asked. "We're really trying to bridge the gap between ideas and talking and action, and that bridging is really about training."
    The seminars drew all types of conservatives: most had volunteered on a campaign before, but some had yet to take their conservative zeal to the next level.
    The pupils-for-a-day picked up terms like "win number," learned about the need for candidates to spend half their time fundraising and the number of votes you can win per 100 phone calls.
    And then there was Fernando Torrez, a first-time candidate vying for a seat on the Alexandria, Va. city council.
    The CPAC "boot camp" wasn't the first campaign training session Torrez had attended, but the emphasis on get out the vote training and social media convinced Torrez that he needs to buy into Twitter to head a successful campaign.
    "I'm not a Twitter fan, but after today I think I'm going to have to be," he said at the end of the day.
    That's something most on the Left are already tuned into, American Majority's National Executive Director Matt Batzel said during his session on harnessing social media.
    "The Left is naturally better at these things," he told the room of conservatives. "We're lagging behind in these areas."
    Republicans stressed after snagging a historic majority in Congress following the midterms last fall that they had finally caught up with Democrats and, in some cases, beat them at their own game online and on the ground.
    But in an interview after his class, Batzel explained that while conservatives have been making inroads online, "there's still a gap" and "a long ways to go" to close it.
    "We don't necessarily come at it from the objective that what the right has done works," Batzel said. "We want to look objectively at what has worked, what hasn't worked. So the Right may be better at certain things, but online ... ."
    For all the tactics employed by liberals shared Wednesday, the objective of the day was clear: teaching would-be candidates and campaign staffers how to win and booting liberals out of office.
    It's the reason why Anthony Neutout drove from Indiana to the suburbs of Washington, D.C. to enjoy his first CPAC and attend what was billed as "activism boot camp."
    "I'm here because I want to learn anything I can to get Rand Paul elected," Neutout said. "I think I'm going to be more effective."