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.

Elephant on the road, Etosha National Park
Getty Images
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.”


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.”


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.


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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