The GOP’s Talent Gap

The party doesn’t have enough smart people working on its campaigns, and those who do are playing out of position.

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Alex Roarty
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Alex Roarty
Feb. 20, 2014, 4 p.m.

Re­pub­lic­ans who run cam­paigns gripe they lose races be­cause of can­did­ates and ideo­logy. It’s easy to un­der­stand why. Nom­in­ees who deny they be­long to a cov­en or con­fuse — in the most of­fens­ive way con­ceiv­able — the ba­sic bio­logy of sex aren’t ideal nom­in­ees. The more elect­able ones, like Mitt Rom­ney, are forced to ad­opt such a ri­gid agenda that they ir­rit­ate half the elect­or­ate be­fore the gen­er­al elec­tion even be­gins. So vic­tor­ies are hard to come by, just as they would be for a sprint­er with two sprained ankles.

But those same Re­pub­lic­ans who have shep­her­ded count­less Sen­ate, House, and pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates should add one more cul­prit to their list: them­selves. Be­cause there’s mount­ing evid­ence that the party’s polit­ic­al class simply isn’t good at run­ning cam­paigns any­more.

They’re cer­tainly not as good as the Demo­crats. The turnout ex­perts, TV whizzes, and all-around gurus of the Grand Old Party have been out­numbered and out­smar­ted by their ad­versar­ies, who have spent a dec­ade ret­ro­fit­ting their en­tire polit­ic­al in­fra­struc­ture. The res­ult is a dizzy­ing tal­ent gap between the two parties’ polit­ic­al classes, one that shows few signs of clos­ing as the 2014 midterms be­gin. In some ways, the GOP is years be­hind on solv­ing a prob­lem that has no quick fixes.

The turnout ex­perts, TV whizzes, and all-around gurus of the Grand Old Party have been out­numbered and out­smar­ted by their ad­versar­ies

The chasm is widest in tech­no­logy, an area where Demo­crats have in­nov­ated heav­ily while Re­pub­lic­an tac­tics os­si­fied. But the data and di­git­al di­vide, while get­ting most of the at­ten­tion, is only a symp­tom of a lar­ger prob­lem that cuts fun­da­ment­ally to how the Re­pub­lic­an Party op­er­ates — not just at a tac­tic­al level but also a philo­soph­ic­al one. The well-worn path­ways of the party’s op­er­at­ives, in which every low-level staffer com­mits his or her ca­reer to be­com­ing a well-paid TV spe­cial­ist, must change. The party’s best and bright­est need to emu­late the ca­reer arc of their Demo­crat­ic coun­ter­parts, who de­vote them­selves to data and field­work, areas where races are in­creas­ingly won or lost.

A party that cel­eb­rates in­di­vidu­al achieve­ment must learn to bet­ter share in­form­a­tion and work to­geth­er to form a new way of politick­ing — a prac­tice Demo­crats have em­phas­ized for years. For con­ser­vat­ives, that will smack of a col­lect­iv­ist mind-set they de­test as a mat­ter of pub­lic policy. But a top-to-bot­tom change in how the GOP’s polit­ic­al lead­er­ship thinks is ex­actly what many of its own strategists ar­gue is ne­ces­sary to catch up to Demo­crats.

“If you think [the] reas­on you lost to Obama is be­cause you didn’t have a data­base, that’s just a fun­da­ment­al mis­un­der­stand­ing,” said Patrick Ruffini, one of the party’s fore­most di­git­al con­sult­ants. “The prob­lem lies not so much in not hav­ing those spe­cif­ic things. The prob­lem lies in a cul­ture.”

Tech-savvy con­sult­ants use the word “cul­ture” a lot as they try to con­vince party lead­ers that clos­ing the gap isn’t about find­ing the next tech­no­lo­gic­al wid­get. It’s about trans­form­ing how the party con­ducts its cam­paigns, from op­er­a­tions that rely heav­ily on TV and con­ven­tion­al wis­dom to data-driv­en ef­forts that reach across all me­dia. Most im­port­ant, it re­quires that staffers on those cam­paigns, from cam­paign man­ager to rank-and-file work­ers, over­haul not just what they do but how they think.

And chan­ging that cul­ture will take more than a single elec­tion cycle, or even two. That wor­ries some Re­pub­lic­ans, who gaze at the 2014 land­scape and see a year in which the party could eas­ily cap­ture the Sen­ate ma­jor­ity while ex­tend­ing its grip on the House. The GOP will win those races be­cause of Obama­care’s un­pop­ular­ity or a sag­ging eco­nomy, but that won’t mean the party has sud­denly figured out a bet­ter way to run its cam­paigns.

Re­pub­lic­ans like Ruffini say short-term suc­cess could cost the GOP in the long run. “Say we do win in 2014; say we do win in 2016. I still think without a sys­tem­at­ic re­view or sys­tem­at­ic up­root­ing of how we op­er­ate, we’re go­ing to be swim­ming against the tide of his­tory,” he said. “Did Demo­crats have a bet­ter cam­paign in­fra­struc­ture in 2010? Yes, they did. They still lost. As a res­ult of that cam­paign, we took wrong les­sons out of that.”

SHAL­LOW BENCH

The biggest de­fi­cit Re­pub­lic­ans face isn’t the skills of their op­er­at­ives or the ab­sence of new­fangled cam­paign tech­no­logy. It’s their num­bers: The GOP simply doesn’t have enough people — or a wide-enough vari­ety of them. And even those men and wo­men who are work­ing are of­ten fit­ted in­to the wrong kind of job.

“Re­pub­lic­ans con­cen­trate their tal­ent on the most tra­di­tion­al as­pects of cam­paign­ing, while Demo­crats tend to blaze new ground in areas like data ana­lyt­ics”

A Decem­ber study by the pro­gress­ive polit­ic­al firm New Or­gan­iz­ing In­sti­tute found a wide chasm between the num­ber of staffers on Demo­crat­ic versus Re­pub­lic­an cam­paigns — na­tion­ally, the ra­tio was close to 3-to-1 in fa­vor of Demo­crats. In swing-state Nevada, where Re­pub­lic­ans had hoped the hous­ing bust and vi­brant Mor­mon com­munity would lift Mitt Rom­ney to vic­tory, the totals were even more lop­sided: 498 Demo­crats worked the state, to only 20 Re­pub­lic­ans.

While the study isn’t per­fect — it doesn’t of­fer a full count of staffers who worked for a con­sultancy, for ex­ample, and it doesn’t dif­fer­en­ti­ate between those who worked on a cam­paign for three months and those who were there for just three days — its find­ings rang true for many plugged-in strategists who work on cam­paigns. “The end of our pool is smal­ler than the end of their pool in a lot of vi­tal areas,” said Rick Wilson, a Flor­ida-based Re­pub­lic­an op­er­at­ive.

Worse, ac­cord­ing to some Re­pub­lic­ans, those who are work­ing aren’t in the right po­s­i­tions. “Any­one who has hung around GOP cam­paigns can tell you that this sounds totally in­tu­it­ively right,” Ruffini wrote in a blog post as­sess­ing the data. “Re­pub­lic­ans con­cen­trate their tal­ent on the most tra­di­tion­al as­pects of cam­paign­ing, while Demo­crats tend to blaze new ground in areas like data ana­lyt­ics, and fo­cus more on [the] field.”

Field­work might sound mundane, but it’s where many smart cam­paigns are in­vest­ing the most money. There’s no bet­ter ex­ample than Obama’s last cam­paign, which em­phas­ized voter-to-voter con­tact among its army of vo­lun­teers and low-level em­ploy­ees. The ground game was the largest in pres­id­en­tial his­tory.

To Ruffini and oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans, this mis­al­loc­a­tion tugs at a re­lated and equally daunt­ing chal­lenge. GOP lead­ers have hemmed and hawed about the party’s di­git­al and tech­no­logy gap since los­ing to Obama’s tech­no­lo­gic­ally su­per­i­or ef­fort in 2012. They’ve in­ves­ted mil­lions of dol­lars, es­pe­cially at the Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee, to re­make their voter-out­reach and polit­ic­al-ana­lyt­ics ef­forts. But as the NOI data show, money’s not the big prob­lem. It’s people. And the GOP can’t train, or re­train, a gen­er­a­tion of op­er­at­ives overnight.

“As far as this gap, we’ve been do­ing a lot in the last year to close it: buy­ing the tech­no­logy, buy­ing the tal­ent,” said Alex Lun­dry, who served as Rom­ney’s dir­ect­or of data sci­ence. “But the thing you can’t buy is the cul­ture. And that’s the place where we’re strug­gling the most.”

Some doubt that the GOP’s lead­er­ship truly un­der­stands the breadth and depth of the chal­lenge be­fore the party. Vin­cent Har­ris, a well-known GOP di­git­al strategist, points to last year’s Vir­gin­ia gubernat­ori­al elec­tion between Demo­crat Terry McAul­iffe and Re­pub­lic­an Ken Cuc­cinelli as evid­ence. While McAul­iffe in­ves­ted heav­ily in ana­lyt­ics and field­work, Cuc­cinelli’s ef­fort looked an aw­ful lot like cam­paigns of the past. His in­vest­ment in data, ana­lyt­ics, and voter-tar­get­ing paled in com­par­is­on to McAul­iffe’s. In the con­sult­ant’s es­tim­a­tion, it’s a sign that many of the Re­pub­lic­ans run­ning ma­jor cam­paigns still don’t get it.

“I think the Re­pub­lic­an Party is do­ing a lot of talk,” Har­ris said. “But without a doubt, it has def­in­itely not moved to where Demo­crats are.”

BLUE-COL­LAR POLIT­ICS

Demo­crats had the help of a ma­jor ally in the quest to mod­ern­ize their cam­paigns: uni­ons. The labor move­ment might seem like an odd gen­er­at­or of cut­ting-edge tac­tics but, squeezed by de­clin­ing mem­ber­ship and funds, it has turned in­to an in­nov­a­tion fact­ory for the party. Mi­chael Pod­horzer, the AFL-CIO’s polit­ic­al dir­ect­or, was a founder of the Ana­lyst In­sti­tute, a group ded­ic­ated to test­ing the best meth­ods for voter con­tact and per­sua­sion.

Re­pub­lic­ans don’t hurt for al­lies. But many of them, like the Karl Rove-foun­ded su­per PAC Amer­ic­an Cross­roads and the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce, fol­low a simple for­mula: Raise a bunch of money and spend it on TV ads. It’s not ex­actly a re­volu­tion­ary way to con­duct cam­paigns. “What is the third-party group that is equi­val­ent to the labor move­ment on our side?” Lun­dry asked. “Is it the cham­ber? Prob­ably not.”

A few GOP con­sult­ants say the party’s con­ser­vat­ive philo­sophy hinders the shar­ing of its best ideas.

Un­like uni­ons, those GOP-lean­ing groups don’t in­vest much in the ground game, which, to many GOP op­er­at­ives who do work in the field, is part of a big­ger prob­lem. The GOP’s polit­ic­al class simply doesn’t value that kind of work, even if it’s in­creas­ingly im­port­ant in the 21st cen­tury.

Most young Re­pub­lic­an op­er­at­ives view or­gan­iz­ing as a mere entry point to a ca­reer that will even­tu­ally lead to big­ger, and bet­ter-pay­ing, gigs. “Demo­crats ac­tu­ally set up and train people to think about those jobs as ca­reers,” said Bri­an Sto­bie, a part­ner at the GOP data-man­age­ment firm Op­timus. “A field-or­gan­iz­ing roll can be a ca­reer over there. In our world, it’s a $27,000-a-year job you can’t wait to get out of.”

“All you’re think­ing the whole time is, ‘I can’t wait to get out of this and be the polit­ic­al dir­ect­or,’ ” he ad­ded.

Oth­er ex­plan­a­tions are myri­ad. A few GOP con­sult­ants say the party’s con­ser­vat­ive philo­sophy hinders the shar­ing of its best ideas — both with oth­er Re­pub­lic­an cam­paigns and with­in in­di­vidu­al cam­paigns them­selves. “We are so in­di­vidu­al­ist­ic on the Re­pub­lic­an side, both in our philo­sophy and policy,” Har­ris said. “It def­in­itely bleeds over in­to how we are man­aging and struc­tur­ing cam­paigns. And we have to break that.”

Even the party’s agenda can get in the way. As Robert Draper out­lined in The New York Times Magazine in Feb­ru­ary, the party’s con­ser­vat­ism on cul­tur­al is­sues might pre­vent it from re­cruit­ing the young op­er­at­ives it needs from Sil­ic­on Val­ley and oth­er places. The prob­lems with these tech-savvy youths mir­ror the GOP’s prob­lem with young voters in gen­er­al who might sym­path­ize with the party’s fisc­al con­ser­vat­ism. As Draper wrote, the GOP’s op­pos­i­tion to gay mar­riage and abor­tion rights ali­en­ates those would-be op­er­at­ives. The tal­ent pools the GOP must tap in­to, then, are run­ning dry.

RE­IN­VENT­ING THE WHEEL

It’s not that the GOP lead­ers don’t get it. Most of them talk with guys like Ruffini, Lun­dry, and Har­ris all the time. They use the same lan­guage, too, ur­ging the party to trans­form its polit­ic­al cul­ture while over­haul­ing its data cap­ab­il­it­ies.

“Our chal­lenge is less of a tech­no­logy prob­lem and more of a cul­ture prob­lem,” read the re­port from the Growth and Op­por­tun­ity Pro­ject, the RNC’s re­com­men­ded changes to the party after the 2012 elec­tion de­feat. “We need to strive for an en­vir­on­ment of in­tel­lec­tu­al curi­os­ity, data, re­search, and test­ing to en­sure that our pro­grams are work­ing. We need to define our mis­sion by set­ting spe­cif­ic polit­ic­al goals and then al­low­ing data, di­git­al, and tech tal­ent to un­leash the tools of tech­no­logy and work to­ward achiev­ing those goals. And just as with all forms of voter con­tact, di­git­al must be tested, and we must meas­ure our rate of re­turn.”

And they bristle at the sug­ges­tion that their changes are little more than rhet­or­ic. To be fair, they’re right. The RNC has spent tens of mil­lions of dol­lars up­grad­ing its data op­er­a­tions and hired a former seni­or Face­book en­gin­eer, Andy Bar­kett, as its new chief tech­no­logy of­ficer. It has worked with re­cruit­ing firms to hire young Sil­ic­on Val­ley tal­ent, and even set up what it calls a Para Bel­lum Labs, a kind of start-up firm with­in the com­mit­tee de­signed to help the party in­nov­ate new ideas.

The Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee has es­tab­lished its own de facto boot camp for party strategists, a pro­gram called EL­EV­ATE, to train them in the best prac­tices for di­git­al strategy. That helps amend prob­lems at the in­di­vidu­al cam­paign level, says Ger­rit Lans­ing, the NR­CC’s di­git­al dir­ect­or. But he’s more ex­cited about changes made to the lead­er­ship at all the com­mit­tees, changes he says will in­fuse them — and, by ex­ten­sion, the party’s es­tab­lish­ment — with the mind-set ne­ces­sary to catch up to the Demo­crats.

“Every­one agrees cul­tur­al change was needed throughout the party, which is why the com­mit­tees who have the greatest in­flu­ence over party de­cisions have made ma­jor struc­tur­al changes to how they op­er­ate,” Lans­ing said. “Those struc­tur­al changes — not lar­ger ad buys or flashy gad­gets — are the quick­est, most dra­mat­ic way to af­fect cul­tur­al change throughout the party.”

Some Re­pub­lic­ans are put­ting those words in­to prac­tice. Mitch Mc­Con­nell’s team in Ken­tucky, for in­stance, has pledged to build the most tech-savvy GOP Sen­ate cam­paign ever. And they’ve turned to a sur­pris­ing source to help them do it: Na­tion­Build­er, a polit­ic­al firm that grew up help­ing Demo­crats merge dif­fer­ent strands of a cam­paign’s op­er­a­tion.

“We didn’t want in­form­a­tion siloed,” said Jesse Benton, Mc­Con­nell’s cam­paign man­ager. “I’ve been part of so many cam­paign op­er­a­tions where you have a fun­drais­ing data­base, a voter-con­tact data­base, oth­er forms of data com­ing in, and they’re not talk­ing to each oth­er. We wanted to have everything in one hub that could be then looked at and ana­lyzed to make smart de­cisions.”

What all of their ef­forts can’t do, however, is make up for lost time and people. A dec­ade of ig­nor­ing its own polit­ic­al prac­tices has left the GOP in a deep hole, one it can’t climb out of in a single elec­tion cycle. Re­pub­lic­ans will need a fo­cused ef­fort for years to catch up to Demo­crats — one the party will have to main­tain even if it man­ages to win big in 2014 without it.

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