Mr. Carson took 22 percent of the vote, followed by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas with 13 percent and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin with 12 percent. All three were speakers at the fifth annual conference, sponsored by the Centennial Institute and Colorado Christian University.
Other prominent conservatives who received votes included Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former New York Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Rep. Allen West of Florida.
The poll of 3,300 conference attendees wrapped up an event focused on how conservatives can win the battle of ideas in a culture that increasingly tilts toward progressives.
“What we have to do as conservatives is not just beat Republicans over the head and say, ‘You’ve got to carry our message and vote for our bills.’ We have to pave the road for them,” said former Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who now heads the Heritage Foundation.
“We have to convince Americans that these ideas are best for them, and what we’ll see is politics will follow the culture,” said Mr. DeMint. “That’s why I left the Senate. Politics is a lagging indicator — it follows the culture. If we can’t win the battle of ideas among the American people, it doesn’t matter who we elect. They eventually will have to vote with their constituents.”
A big part of winning back the culture is connecting with younger voters, who overwhelmingly supported Barack Obama for president in 2008 and 2012. That means nominating candidates who have a better grasp of pop culture, said Charlie Kirk, head of the student group Turning Point USA.
“I have a really simple test for the next candidate that we’re going to nominate for president of the United States: If you can’t tell me which team LeBron James plays for, if you can’t tell me if Derek Jeter is still playing baseball, and if you can’t tell me how many ‘Hunger Games’ movies there are, then I really don’t think you should be our nominee,” Mr. Kirk said.
Sen. Tim Scott, South Carolina Republican, said conservatives need to seek out candidates who are upbeat and positive.
He cited Rep. Cory Gardner of Colorado, who is challenging Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, saying, “You can’t see Cory and not smile, because he’s always smiling.
“One of the keys to success is making sure our candidates are likable and armed with the right message,” Mr. Scott said.
No conservative gathering would be complete without a few shots at the left, and plenty of those were made at the Hyatt Regency Denver.
Sen. Mike Lee of Utah said the GOP must be the “party of ideas” because Democrats are “intellectually exhausted” after decades of propping up the welfare state and dividing voters “with identity politics and the make-believe war on women.”
Mr. West brought the crowd to its feet repeatedly with his dissection of the progressive agenda and how it failed to represent “America at its best,” the conference theme.
“America is at its worst when we enslave individuals economically,” said Mr. West. “If you don’t believe what I’m talking about, go to any inner city, in Atlanta, in Detroit, in Chicago, in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, and you will see America when it is not at its best. You’ll also see that liberal progressive socialists are in charge of those communities.”