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Republican Digerati to the Party Establishment: "There You Go Again"

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Wednesday, November 14 2012

Some Republicans feel their brand is battered after 2012. Photo: Flickr/Johnath

For several digital strategists in the Republican party, 2012 is a haunting replay of 2008: As they ponder the magnitude of their party’s losses up and down the ballot, they’re casting around looking for leaders outside of the traditional party structure, which has failed them, in their eyes, two presidential election cycles in a row.

Back then after Barack Obama’s campaign bootstrapped its way to the Presidency with novel organizing and digital tactics, the Republican digital strategists Patrick Ruffini, who worked on George W. Bush's 2004 campaign and did a two-year term inside the Republican National Committee, and Mindy Finn, who worked for W with Ruffini and was Romney's new media director in 2007, launched “Rebuild the Party.” It was a passionate 3,200-word manifesto spelling out how the Republican party needed to modernize itself by reaching out to young people, and building an Internet-connected activist base that would revitalize the party as a civic institution and spread its ideas to from the Senate to local school boards.

Four years later, digital strategists in the Republican party are rehashing the same points. The Republican Party's current message still does not resonate outside the halls of a fading America that is older, whiter, and losing its political clout. And to support the party's arrival in the 21st century, the current leadership has a technology staff that actually has fewer technologists on it than it did four years ago. Veterans among the party's digerati hear the young Republicans who want to seize the levers of power and overhaul their political machine singing a tune that sounds depressingly familiar.

“Here we are four years later, and we’re having the same conversation as in 2008, and not a lot is different,” said Michael Turk, a longtime GOP digital and communications strategist who has moved on and now runs his own issue advocacy consulting firm called Opinion Mover Strategies.

“A lot of what we suggested just hasn’t come to pass,” he noted. “They haven’t built the institutional infrastructure, and the entities to compete with the Democrats. In 2012, they’re still carrying out the same battle as 2008.” appears to be dormant, after nearly 9,000 people apparently signed up to be part of the new Republican movement, and after dozens upon dozens of prominent conservative grassroots activists endorsed Finn and Ruffini’s proposal. Finn left Engage, the digital consulting firm she founded with Ruffini, to work at Twitter. Neither she nor Ruffini responded to queries from techPresident as to why their effort apparently fizzled out.

But fizzled out it has. Though everyone agrees that the Republicans now understand how to use Twitter and other social media, digital strategists are belatedly admitting that is not enough.

"I want to give credit to what the RNC has done in the past few years -- they have a stronger foundation than what they had four years ago when it was a mess when Michael Steele was running it," said Sean Hackbarth, another longtime Republican digital strategist who’s blogging for the Chamber of Commerce.

But he adds: “At this point, Republicans can’t just maintain this trend of digital improvement – we’ve got to find a way to leapfrog [the Democrats.] Just getting even is frustrating.”

And the party has made no progress since 2008 in making the case for itself as to why young voters of all ethnicities -- a growing sector of the modern American electorate -- should take a look at its policies. Republicans need a full-scale modernization, from elements of the party's platform to the methods they use to communicate their message, veterans say. Both, they imply, are outdated.

Kristen Soltis, a pollster and vice president at The Winston Group, talks about the Republicans’ severely damaged “brand” among youth voters, a subject that was the top of the conversation in 2008.

“It’s causing the Republican Party problems across a different variety of groups,” she told techPresident. "It just shows up particularly strongly among young voters.”

“The Republican party is viewed fairly or unfairly as a party of older, whiter, wealthier males, and that is not what America looks like. That is not what America is,” she said. “Most of the proportion of the youth vote came from the growth of young Latinos. Increasingly, you cannot separate out the youth vote from the Latino vote, these are all linked together – and so the Republican Party has severe brand problems.”

And Romney's failure to explicitly explain why Republican policies would benefit young people hurt the party's chances too. Though Republicans' greatest gains compared to 2008 were among voters between 25 to 29, they still lost those voters to Democrats by a 23-point margin. Since young voters make up 20 percent of the voting population, "that is unsustainable," she said.

The Romney campaign tried to make the election a referendum on Obama, but that wasn't enough. Voters needed to be given reasons to vote for Republicans. For example, when vice presidential pick Paul Ryan said people in their twenties should not have to live out their lives staring at their faded Obama posters in their old rooms in their parents' houses, that struck a chord, but wasn't enough to galvanize action.

"That was an emotionally resonant image -- it was what a lot of people were living," Soltis said. "The problem is that we never explained how we would get them out of their parents' house."

Like Turk and digital strategist Liz Mair, Soltis also points to voters' perception of Republicans' stance on social issues.

"The problem isn't that young voters didn't like Mitt Romney or didn't vote for him in great numbers, the problem is a rejection of the Republican brand by large numbers of young people, which links into the unhelpful conversations that demonized Latinos, or really unhelpful comments from Todd Akin or Richard Mourdock around the issue of rape, or the Republican party's ineffective response around the contraception mandate," she said.

The problem is severe for Republicans because the perceptions extends down the ballot, she noted. Several digital strategists interviewed by techPresident suggested that the problem doesn’t merely lie in tactics, but the fundamental failure of the Republican party to address the structural problems mentioned by Ruffini and Finn in their manifesto.

While Romney's campaign reportedly staffed up with technologists in the summer, Turk argues that the Republican party's lack of an effort to staff up and build party infrastructure way beforehand reflects a lack of buy-in institutionally to to idea that Republicans need to "play political moneyball."

A look at the RNC's tech bench shows that the tech staffers don't come from a tech background. RNC Digital Strategy Director Tyler Brown comes from a communications background. Andrew Abdel-Malik, who rolled out the RNC's vaunted Social Victory Center, is a political operative. Both have fundamentally different professional backgrounds than from their predecessors, Cyrus Krohn, Bob Ellsworth and Todd Herman, who all had previously worked at technology companies and have experience working with large databases.

When asked earlier in the year about the work that they had done to build the RNC's tech infrastructure up, RNC Press Secretary Kirsten Kukowski said that the RNC had started afresh. RNC Communications Director Sean Spicer did not return our emails offering an opportunity to comment.

Strategists like Mair and Turk point out that the Republican Party’s slowness to adapt fits, in a certain way, with a Republican precept: innovation rarely comes from the establishment.

“Obama did not come out of the Democratic party infrastructure,” Mair notes. “Rather than looking at carving out the existing pie, which is what Hillary [Clinton] and [John] Edwards were doing, Obama said: ‘How can I expand this pie?’ and then use that to propel myself forward?”

“That’s why I think some of the candidates we may have on offer in 2016 may be so interesting, because I’m not sure that they’re going to come from the party’s traditional infrastructure,” she said, pointing to the Libertarian-leaning Sen. Rand Paul, R-KY as a potential candidate.

Both Turk and Mair said many people they know are open to Republicans' approach to economic and fiscal issues, but not to the aggressive social agenda of the party's Akins, Mourdocks, or even Ryans.

Turk said that projects such as the RNC’s Data Trust initiative, moving its voter database to the hands of a closely held third party with more flexibility to work with allies and stay modern, shows that the party is going in the right direction. But the party has room for improvement.

"We need to stop giving the contracts to the same consultants," he said.

He also blames former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele's tenure for slowing the RNC down on projects like Data Trust.

"We need to stop giving the contracts to the establishment consultants because frankly, they've been doing this for so long they don't have any good ideas anymore," he said. "They're been running the same campaign, the same strategy, the same ideas for the past 20 years."