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.
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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.

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."

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 last 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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Alex Roarty is a politics writer for National Journal.

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