The Republican Party's Talent Gap

The GOP doesn't have enough smart people working on its campaigns, and those who do are playing out of position.
Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters

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 chasm is widest in technology, an area where Democrats have innovated aggressively 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.

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.

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Alex Roarty is a politics writer for National Journal.

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