NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Charlie Kirk was 18 when Bill Montgomery saw him speak for the first time. Kirk succeeded where people before him had failed — he awakened a college-aged crowd of about 400 from their collective slumber while talking about the difference between Occupy Wall Street protesters and “Tea Partiers" at an event at Benedictine University in Illinois.
“He knew how to speak to young kids, to get them energized and activated,” said Montgomery, who’s now a senior adviser at Turning Point USA, the organization Kirk subsequently founded to educate young people about conservative principles.
"The kids were asleep [before]. When Charlie spoke, it took about 20 seconds. They were wide awake. They were interacting. They were cheering."
Experiences like the now 21-year-old Kirk’s inspired organizers at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the annual conservative pow-wow running through Saturday here near Washington. Organizers dedicate a day at the conference to “training” younger-leaning conservative operatives and activists. The four-hour-long series of panels and speakers on Wednesday constituted what the conference termed a “boot camp” for operatives and activists looking to get more involved.
Despite a generally younger-leaning crowd, CPAC has been criticized in the past for its lack of youth outreach. Even on Wednesday, one conservative attendee mused that it “has been pathetic.”
Wednesday’s boot camp was part of an effort to fix that. It featured panels and speakers — including Kirk — focused on topics like using social media as a tool for online activism, employing viral video to get across a message in a different way, and getting recruits involved in student government and college-campus activities. Most of the topics, though boilerplate in any type of social media "boot camp," they drew packed, standing-room-only crowds of more than 100.
“Something like this really arms students with the nuts and bolts of what they can do,” said Ron Meyer, the president of Springboard Media Strategies LLC and a former spokesman for Young America’s Foundation, a youth-related non-profit.
“A lot of times in the past, young people have come here for the fame of it all. But they’ve left with nothing about what you’re supposed to do.”
The panels or speakers ran no more than 15 or 30 minutes each, a good length for an audience that is stereotyped as distracted all the time. Meyer was on a panel with Kirk and Caleb Bonham, who runs a popular conservative-leaning YouTube series and has more than 22,000 Twitter followers.
On the panel, which focused on how each got their start, Bonham told a story about how “fate” was responsible for bringing him into the political realm. He had originally dropped out of college to work in municipal code enforcement — something he said, tongue in cheek, was a “wise life decision.”
He started listening to more talk radio and was motivated to go back to college to get a political-science degree. He worked for a while as a chief of staff to multiple Colorado state legislators. One day after a conference in the state, he was walking out of a cigar bar when someone randomly came up to him and told him he should be on TV.
Bonham thought it was a far-fetched idea, not the least because he has Tourette’s syndrome. But that’s when he started his YouTube series. And his videos are routinely viewed by tens of thousands of people.
“It doesn’t matter how crazy you are,” said Bonham, who added he didn’t have any video experience before he started the series. “It doesn’t matter what you have to overcome.”
Justin Crolik, a 22-year-old student at St. Francis in Illinois, told Fusion he enjoyed that panel most because he’s trying to become more politically active on social media.
“It was really good to hear from people that have had success in that area,” he said.
On the activist side of the boot camp, the day started with a presentation about social media and how to focus online organizing. That’s the one that was most insightful for 26-year-old Noelani Bonifacio.
Bonifacio is a senior legislative assistant for Sam Slom, the sole-serving Republican member of the Hawaii state senate. The presentation showed how the political world is trending more and more toward social media — 88 percent of social-media users are registered voters, according to the organization American Majority. It gave her an idea of how to stand out and differentiate in a state full of blue.
“It showed what the shape of a modern campaign can and should be,” Bonifacio said. “And all the things you need to think about when you’re part of running a campaign.”
Kirk and Montgomery, for one, think there’s a market for young conservative activism. Turning Point USA, which Kirk founded less than three years ago, now has partnerships with more than 800 colleges and universities across the United States. They have 27 full-time employees, and Montgomery predicts they’ll have at least 150 more employees on college campuses by the end of the year.
Their mission is not to endorse candidates, but to get young people involved at They think events like Wednesday’s boot camp was a good start toward promoting that mission.
“Young people need to experience it,” Montgomery said. “They need to see what’s happening.”
Brett LoGiurato is the senior national political correspondent at Fusion, where he covers all things 2016. He'll give you everything you need to know about politics, with a healthy side of puns.