What's Wrong With the GOP: A Republican Consultant's View
In the aftermath of last November’s rather crushing GOP loss, there’s been the usual process of soul-searching, auditing, and roundtable discussing to ascertain what went wrong and how the Republican party can avoid screwing up on a similar par in 2014 and 2016.
I’ve largely kept out of this process for two reasons. First, travel during December prevented me from partaking in certain efforts forming part of this overall endeavor. Second, I’m a cynic, and remain skeptical that the efforts that have been undertaken and which are, in some cases, continuing will result in the party really understanding the true nature and depth of its problems, let alone cause the party to get its, er, shiitake mushrooms together. The incentives just aren’t quite aligned in that direction yet, in my honest opinion (I may write more on that later).
But, people keep asking me where the problems lie and what do I think needs fixing. So, I’m publishing this post, which—full disclosure—I really feel like comprises a number of “Master of the Obvious” elements, but which some people seem to be missing despite all the chatter.
Here are the big five problems the GOP has faced and will probably continue to face, having regard to where opportunities were missed in 2010 and 2012.
First, a lot of bad candidates have been fielded, and a lot of crappy campaigns have been run. And no, I don’t just mean that candidate whose name immediately popped into your head there.
Second, and tied in with this, we have too many less-than-cutting-edge and insufficiently creative and/or out-of-date consultants making a lot of money off of said crappy campaigns.
Third, our technology sucks in comparison to what Democrats have.
Fourth, growing portions of the electorate—Hispanic-Americans and Asian-Americans—either loathe us or just don’t like us.
Fifth, the party seems to have forgotten that it’s supposed to stand for something—by which I mean actual principles of some sort, and not just, say, the general bumper sticker concept that “OBAMA = BAD.”
Obviously, some of these problems overlap and interrelate, but let’s start by discussing candidates to pinpoint some problems there (while hinting at some problems in other categories, too).
Everyone knows that Todd Akin, Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle were not good candidates. What a lot of people don’t seem to recognize is that their opponents, even though they looked like they would perform better based on on-paper attributes, were even worse candidates. How do I know this? They lost to Todd Akin, Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle. I’m serious. Think about that for a minute.
Now, I come from the more moderate end of the GOP, and cut my teeth as a blogger as an advocate for moderate Republicans. A lot of people in that part of the party will be inclined to respond to this criticism by saying, “no, they weren’t worse candidates, it’s just that the party is so extreme that more moderate or mainstream candidates can’t win over the base.”
And it pains me to say it, but this is simply not true, and I’m going to throw out several names to prove it to you: Mark Kirk. Kelly Ayotte. Carly Fiorina. Dan Coats.
Kirk, Ayotte and Coats not only beat primary opponents widely considered to be more conservative than them, they also won in the general. Fiorina (for whom I consulted—full disclosure) won decisively in the primary besting an opponent generally regarded as more conservative than her (and for the record, California Republicans are more like Kansas Republicans than New York City Republicans). While ultimately losing in blue California, Fiorina lost by a lesser margin than did gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman. She also beat the registration gap between Democrats and Republicans.
Now, not all of these people started off running campaigns that might be described as A+ (side note: In my experience, most campaigns suffer road bumps and hiccups on a fairly phenomenal scale for the first 2-8 weeks, anyway).
However, they did not assume they would coast to a victory and they took the job of campaigning very seriously.
That means they hired good staff (not just whoever was already familiar to them or in their entourage or who that one guy who won big 10 year ago used, or some big name consultants who talked a good game but didn’t have a record of putting points on the board).
They set a good strategy that was not predicated on “I’m electable and Republican primary voters like to vote for candidates widely considered to be electable, because they hate Democrats and want to beat them above all else.”
They used opposition research, not just fluffy positive-message “I love puppies” nonsense.
They reached out to, and engaged with, key constituencies.
They raised the requisite amount of money, having regard not just to advertising requirements, but (in at least two cases) also digitally-oriented initiatives they wanted to run, maintaining appropriate field staff, etc.
They (mostly) spent the money they raised wisely, and not on gimmicky things like airplanes flying around with promotional banners flowing from them or dubious things like big consultancy fees or salaries to the candidate’s own family.
They made a conscious effort not to say stuff that would read as dumb and/or offensive and/or crazy (or which actually was dumb and/or offensive and/or crazy).
They recognized they were campaigning in the 21st century and not, say, 1994—and they ran their campaigns accordingly.
These are things the other guys didn’t do, or didn’t do enough of.
Sarah Steelman, one of Akin’s opponents, basically failed to raise any money, making it hard for her to beat Akin on the day (one dreads to think how she would have stood up to Claire McCaskill, who wasn’t exactly running the world’s cheapest, crappest campaign).
Mike Castle, who I would have infinitely preferred Delaware Republicans nominate, just couldn’t fathom that his party would nominate someone as nutty as Christine O’Donnell (lesson #1 in life: Never assume, because when you do, you make an “ass” out of “u” and “me.”) He also spent time campaigning at, say, art fairs—probably a very good thing to do in the general, but probably not that helpful in a Republican primary. (Note: Castle did turn things around in the final weeks of the campaign, though by then it was too late; so he does deserve some credit for his efforts.)
As for Sue Lowden, well, she allowed herself to become the Chicken Lady, and did not (other than with regard to that and losing to Angle) run a very remarkable campaign. Tarkanian, the other Republican in that fight, got tagged as a gun grabber, which just doesn’t really fly in Nevada.
Other than Castle (who had won statewide in Delaware previously, indicating he knew how to overcome that obstacle), I honestly do query whether any of these people would have won their races, had they won the GOP nomination. My gut tells me “no,” despite the popular conception that they would have been more palatable candidates to the general electorate.
So the answer isn’t just “bolster the candidate who looks more electable with outside money,” as at least one group is now proposing to do.
The answer is, if you don’t want to run Sharron Angle or Todd Akin or Christine O’Donnell in the general and thereby fail to retake the Senate, identify and run better more mainstream or moderate candidates in the first place.
Or, if you are a more mainstream or moderate candidate who is aggrieved at the prospect of losing to some looney bin Tea Partier whackjob, get your shiitake mushrooms together, quit whining, and do the hard work it takes to win.
No one is entitled to electoral success or backing from the party faithful. You have to earn it. Get off your backside and get it done. This is not flag football. This is the NFL. And too few Republican candidates and campaigns understand that.
To that point, we come to problem number two: Consultants.
Just like in professional sports, we have a good number of seasoned vets who did a stellar job at some point in their careers and who likely do still have something of value to contribute, but who just have not been delivering of late (with repeated demonstration of this).
They should be involved in campaigns and not forcibly retired, but perhaps they shouldn’t be, you know, in charge of everything or most of the huge things.
Frequently, however, they are in charge, setting all manner of strategy, dictating message, dictating hiring (often of more junior personnel with whom they have a personal or business relationship, but who may not be the best people for the job), and controlling budgets and expenditures.
This is a little bit like if the San Francisco 49ers had, in last night’s Superbowl, decided to play Joe Montana as their quarterback, while paying him huge fees, and giving him hiring and firing authority over the rest of the team. It would not have been a good idea for the 49ers, and it would have left their fans tremendously disappointed, but it would have been fun and profitable for Joe Montana, and it would have generated a lot of earned media for the team in question.
The GOP does this too much. They need to stop doing it, and start looking for the next Joe Montana. Hire that guy.
Now, admittedly, in some areas, this is tough.
In some cases, the best talent available just doesn’t want to work on many (or any) political campaigns (full disclosure: I am part of the problem here; I prefer corporate and trade association—a.k.a., issues—work, though I will work for very select candidates under very select circumstances).
In other cases, there just aren’t a lot of people who actually do the thing in question, as opposed to claiming to do it.
Which makes for a good transition point to discussing technology.
These days, just about everyone fancies themselves a digital guru of some sort, but in practice we have a lot more of these than we do these in the party. And it was a huge problem in 2012, because the Obama guys had this.
No amount of planning to conduct Skype sessions or Google+ hangouts with activists or really cool plans to do snazzy demographically-targeted Facebook ads (hint: My mother can do those, too) or Internet radio advertising is going to overcome that basic deficiency.
What will is actually recruiting genuine technologists from, you know, tech companies to come work on GOP campaigns. But this is something the GOP isn’t doing as well at as we should, for a couple of reasons.
First, people who are building the future at Microsoft or Google or Facebook or Apple or Intel or Amazon or wherever are likely earning quite a lot more than they would at, say, the RNC. They also likely have a lot more ability to secure budget for items they deem essential to spend on than your average RNC New Media Director does, and potentially less paperwork entailed to actually get the money. So only diehard Republicans would likely entertain a mere discussion about leaving and going to work there, unless the party committee starts allocating a lot more money for its New Media Director position and operations.
Second, suffice to say, there aren’t a lot of those diehards out there. The GOP, more than Democrats on the whole, has appeared disinterested in technology and policy issues that directly affect the tech sector. Moreover, certain policies the GOP has advocated or been seen to advocate are noxious to a lot of people in the tech world.
Opposition to more legal immigration, which you get from some more loudmouthed conservatives and conservative-oriented groups like FAIR, is not a seller in Silicon Valley or Redmond.
Opposition to gay marriage similarly is not.
The Paulite end of the party actually has a fair number of fans in the tech sector (check out Google personnel’s 2012 donations if you don’t believe me), but the Rick Santorum/Todd Akin portion is, well, not helpful for getting the actual talent you’d want on board to take a good look at potentially getting on board, in a hands on, day-to-day, active way.
This tends to limit access to a particular type of talent to a particular type of candidate, only. Good news if your last name is Paul. Bad news if you’re anyone else (probably).
Third, even if you overcome these things, a lot of what is culturally normal on political campaigns is anathema in the business world, and the tech sector specifically. A three-day turnaround to get a new website approved? Literally, the standard approvals process is roughly as scary to your average technologist as waking up in bed with his mother-in-law, naked.
As to the fourth problem, it’s been pretty well-covered over the course of the last couple of weeks with the immigration debate heating up. Nonetheless, it’s worth noting just how deep in it the GOP currently is, and why.
Yes, in part our problems with Hispanic voters are to do with the stance the party has, by and large, taken on immigration.
However, just as much, it’s to do with the language, and our perceived lack of focus on non-immigration issues that matter deeply to a large proportion of Hispanic-Americans.
First off, let’s just stipulate that people like Tom Tancredo getting the platform that they did several years ago has not been helpful. Talking about building electrified fences, double fences, etc., and spurring self-deportation has not been helpful. Calling people “aliens” is generally not a winner. Confusing Asians with Hispanics is not a good thing.
And by the way, all this is true in my experience with naturalized Americans who are not actually of Hispanic origin. Even if it’s intended to be anti-illegal immigrant only, it reads as anti-immigrant, and in many cases, it actually isanti-immigrant. The ad that FAIR has recently been running on DC cable underlines this point: It targets both legal and illegal immigrants, and I personally find it so loathsome I will not link to it here.
But setting aside all this, among other areas of policy that the GOP rather ceded to Democrats some time ago is that of education—which is a key issue for many minority groups, and for immigrants, especially. This is because these groups tend to be very focused on the concept of opportunity, and without a good education, opportunity is diminished.
Say what you will about George W Bush and education (and I’ve said plenty over the years), but his focus on education was something that enabled him to reach out to non-traditional GOP constituencies in a way that, candidly, Mitt Romney was not going to be able to. Bush didn’t win the Hispanic vote (or the African-American vote, for that matter) but he did fare better than Mittens, and it’s worth thinking through the various reasons there could be for that.
Now, in 2016, we might find the same thing with Bobby Jindal or Jeb Bush (who I seriously doubt will run, but hey, there’s always a very small possibility). It was potentially an option for Rick Perry, though Mitt Romney’s handling of the in-state tuition issue helped kill Perry off before that could ever be tested.
The bottom line is, in addition to dealing with immigration policy in a manner that does not read as hostile to key demographic groups and optimally also improves the system, making it easier to immigrate legally and for people we want here to remain here legally and, you know, build businesses, pay taxes, grow our economy, hire people, and generally contribute to our society, the GOP needs to adjust its language and more broadly start focusing on policy areas that actually do matter to these people. Saying that we’re anti-abortion, just like you Carlos and Maria, isn’t doing the job, and it’s not going to, at least not without being coupled with something much stronger and more pertinent. And for Asian-Americans, the social issues chat is likely completely worthless—but again, education is very important.
Finally, a big problem facing the GOP is that it doesn’t really have a very strong brand—or if it does, it is simply the “OBAMA = BAD” brand, which is still pretty weak tea in my estimation (it worked to a degree in 2010, but not in 2012).
Back in the day, I recall a debate about what core principles defined conservatism (which tends to inform the principles of the GOP, whether I like it or not).
David Freddoso, then of National Review, opined that they were guns, babies and taxes.
I opined that spending ought to be in that mix also, though candidly, I’m not sure it ever really has been to anything more than a minor degree, let alone the degree I would hope (but then again, I’m not a conservative, I have issues with conservatives, and if I’m being honest, I would much prefer libertarianism to be the driving philosophical force behind the GOP).
In any event, these days, several years on from that debate, it doesn’t strike me that the GOP is really defined by its stances on guns, babies and taxes, or really anything else, except that diehard opposition to Obama.
Let’s be blunt: This is not good branding.
Coca-Cola is the biggest name in the soda market. If Pepsi wants to change that, do you really think they do it by simply transmitting the message over and over again that Pepsi is “not Coke?”
That’s a pretty poor pitch, if you ask me, and so is the GOP’s.
Bottom line: The GOP needs to start standing for something bigger and less reactive/dependent (i.e., something that only exists because of another thing) than it currently does.
Be the isolationist party, or the realist party, or the neocon party.
Be the party of Milton Friedman economics, or don’t-- but if you’re going to purport to dislike Keynesianism, quit pulling stunts like insisting on higher defense spending or whatever other kind of spending because OMG jobs.
Be for big government conservatism, or be for limited government—but again, if you’re going to purport to be for limited government, don’t campaign on reversing Obamacare’s Medicare cuts.
Be for babies, but if you’re going to do that, quit using pro-life values and proposed legislation primarily as a talking point or a way of bringing in campaign donations or of getting diehard pro-lifers to staff your volunteer operations 24 hours a day because no one else will, and actually do the thing you claim you want to do.
Be for opportunity and the prospect of social mobility, but if you’re going to do that, quit treating education like the #1,053 item on the issue priority list right underneath investigating Lance Armstrong’s drugging as some Republicans do, and start thinking about how you reallocate money away from wasteful programs that benefit people who don’t really need a ton of help to those who are genuinely poor and disadvantaged and who do.
Or be for the super-rich exclusively, but do it proudly and convincingly.
I won’t say I’m not bothered which path is taken, because of course I am.
But looking at this from the perspective of someone who thinks about branding, please just be for something a little bigger than whatever Obama’s against. Not least because he won’t be President forever.
Those are the problems afflicting the GOP, as I see them, for whatever that is worth.
Now, if you’re reading this and you agree, please go do your part because Joe Montana cannot win the 2013 Superbowl for us. Or the 2014 Superbowl. Or the 2016 Superbowl. Not even with a brand spanking new SuperPAC.