Republican Consultants Plot New Tech-Savvy Infrastructure

Republicans develop a four-step plan to train and nurture the next generation of campaign operatives

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Melina Mara / The Washington Post / Getty Images

Phone bank at Mitt Romney for President headquarters, in Springfield, Virginia, March 5, 2012.

Correction Appended March 4, 2013

After last year’s blowout election, the Republican digital strategist Patrick Ruffini went on a not-so-secret mission to find out how to fix what was wrong with his party. “In less than 12 hours, the #infiltration begins,” he tweeted, the day before the start of RootsCamp, an annual conference for Democratic digital, data and grassroots strategists that is held by a liberal non-profit group called the New Organizing Institute.

What he found at the event came as a sort of revelation: A vast liberal brain trust bursting with young talent who had advanced far beyond Republicans in the art and science of using data, analytics and voter outreach. He live-tweeted his observations, and then began meeting with other young strategists in his party, like Katie Harbath, who handles Republican campaign outreach for Facebook, Kristen Soltis Anderson, a pollster at the Winston Group, and Reihan Salam, a political columnist for the National Review.

(MORE: Viewpoint: The GOP Searches for a New Strategy — in All the Wrong Places)

They decided that the conservative movement simply did not have what liberals did: An infrastructure to train and nurture the next generation of campaign operatives and develop cutting-edge techniques. So they decided to take a shot at filling the void, by developing a proposal for a suite of new outside groups that would mimic, and eventually outpace, Democratic efforts. “We are not going to start a single group that is going to solve all the problems,” said Ruffini, a former eCampaign director for the Republican National Committee who is now president of the consulting firm Engage. “What it is going to involve is an ecosystem.”

The first part of that ecosystem, for which incorporation papers were filed last week, will be called the Empower Action Group. It is envisioned as a conservative answer to the New Organizing Institute, a place for training and connecting young conservative talent. It will aim to increase the ranks of people with digital, data and organizing know-how working for the GOP. “We are just hoping to create more people who can go out and implement,” Ruffini said.

The group has already begun seeking funding. “There are so many folks who are so frustrated about how the last cycle went, they are looking to commit resources to fix things,” says the pollster Anderson, whose firm helps lead opinion research for the House GOP leadership.

(MORE: Can This Party Be Saved?)

But the Empower Action Group is just the first of four new organizations they hope to create. Another proposed effort, provisionally called The R&D Lab, would be a conservative response to the liberal Analyst Institute, which develops and tests new techniques for progressive voter contact and persuasion, all of which informed the Obama campaign in 2012. “Data in all forms—polling, analytics, experiments, policy research—must be at the heart of successful Republican rebuilding,” reads a five-page white paper proposing the new effort, which has already been circulated to donors. “Google famously tested forty-one shades of blue to see which one was best for a graphic, yet Republicans do not systematically tests their assumptions and attempt to simulate outcomes before spending resources on various tactics.”

The group also hopes to create a new organization provisionally called The Venture Fund, which is meant to repeat the success of the liberal New Media Ventures, a start-up incubator founded by the Democracy Alliance, a coalition of wealthy progressive benefactors. “A similar force within the Republican Party should aim to be more disruptive,” reads the white paper, “a startup accelerator patterned after Silicon Valley’s Y Combinator that offers small investments and hands-on mentorship to young conservative technologists.”

The final effort envisioned by Ruffini and his colleagues would be a Club for Growth-style campaign fundraising organization, which would promise donations to Republican campaigns that adopt data-driven techniques. “The entity itself could raise hard money to provide as ‘seed funding’ for campaigns interested in conducting tests within their own campaigns,” reads the white paper.

(MORE: The Party of No: New Details on the GOP Plot to Obstruct Obama)

It is still too soon to know if these efforts will grab hold among the Republican fundraising community. Other efforts are underway, both by the Republican National Committee and Charles and David Koch’s network of organizations, to assess the reasons for the 2012 defeat and proposed fixes. But the Ruffini effort does benefit from involving many of the young strategists who will likely be a part of any solution.

It also echoes a similar brainstorming process that young progressive activists undertook after the 2004 election defeat, when the reelection campaign of George W. Bush benefited from a clear technological and organizational advantage over Democrat John Kerry. Many of the groups that Republicans now envy, including the New Organizing Institute, New Media Ventures and the Analyst Institute, grew out of early meetings in bars and boardrooms in D.C. between twenty-something online activists and organizers.

Judith Freeman, the founder of New Organizing Institute, says that the success or failure of the new projects on the right will be determined by the persistence and dedication of the people they recruit. “As anyone who talks about startups, tech or political, will tell you, it’s not the idea, it’s the execution and a million other big and little things that matter to success,” she said. She also noted that the Republican barriers to success may be even greater in 2013 than the Democratic one in 2005. “They have the bigger challenges of conservative ideology and changing demographics, which no amount of technology and tactics can supersede,” she said.

That said, Republicans will have to start their rebuilding somewhere. “This is a step for us to be able to, at a bare minimum, catch up with where they are before we leapfrog them,” said Harbath, the Republican point person at Facebook.  “The gap is pretty large.”

MORE: The GOP’s New Civil War

The original version of this article did not make clear that both “The Venture Fund” and “The R&D Lab,” which are named in the white paper proposal, are provisional names for the new organizations, not final names. The article has been changed to reflect this.

154 comments
LethalAction
LethalAction

@marcylauren @TIMEPolitics #GOP new fascist strategic infrastructure!

stanley00
stanley00

@lfrankli A GOP NMV would probably have a lot more money and a lot fewer ideas.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

Quick, Quick the Pig needs some new lipstick! On the other hand maybe it's time to ditch the Pig.

drudown
drudown

Gee, I guess the GOP is foolish enough to think that their resounding defeat was, in fact, a "messaging problem." 

Just this: the younger generation is inheriting a much more complex and competitive world and- with access to a much wider array of information than their "Fox News Baby" parents and grandparents- are often disinclined to believe that "no new taxes" and "deregulation" are the tonic to the world's ills. Sorry, that was disproven via the Bush tenure that left the People with record deficits and the Wall St. bailout, respectively. 

"After the event, even the fool is wise." - Viscount Symonds

Sparrow55
Sparrow55

Here's a suggestion for the GOP as they contemplate their future.  As much as this may sound like heresy to them, they need to come to grips with the fact Ronald Reagan and the conservative movement he started are dead.  The country is a different place now and the needs and desires of the populace have changed.  Just because something worked in 1980 doesn't mean you can still do the same thing 30+ years later and still expect to be successful.  I mean, geez, Chrysler K Cars were all the rage in 1980, but you don't see anybody trying to sell them now.     

ShawnMcElhinney
ShawnMcElhinney

@SBroadie One reform needed is along the lines of baseball minor league contracts: consultants need performance-based pay on campaigns!

hivemaster
hivemaster

The GOP needs to look in the mirror.  The only thing that better analytics would have provided them was knowledge (in advance) that they were going to lose.  Nate Silver knew, and they demonized him.  The GOP seems to think they can either pray their way or intimidate their way to a victory.  The numbers don't lie, and for the foreseeable future, the GOP will be on the short side of those numbers, especially as long as they think what is broken is the delivery, and not the message.

Sparrow55
Sparrow55

The GOP is still missing the real issue.  They keep talking about the need to better explain their message, get more minorities to reach out and present their message or use better technology to market their message.  The problem is not who explains their message or how they do it.  The problem is the message itself. 

Hollywooddeed
Hollywooddeed

Cool.  Now they can tweet their message that a background check to buy a gun is an assault to liberty, but a medically unnecessary transvaginal probe ordered by a politician is not.

svt1999
svt1999

Obama ran the most viscous take no prisoners campaign in US History.  His campaign's stated goal was "Kill Romney".  That plus a lapdog media guaranteed a victory.

 Two major States (North Carolina and Indiana) along with about 200 counties flipped to the GOP column but it wasn't enough.  

jbroander
jbroander

@PatrickRuffini Along the lines of @aginnt, I and some other con data geeks & growth hackers want to get involved. Let's talk.

retiredvet
retiredvet

Umm - It's not the messenger's method. It's the message. Up to date high tech won't fix the outdated message.

Mikasa22
Mikasa22

“@Timodc: positive movement RT @michaelscherer Consultants plot a tech-savvy future for the Republican party |http://t.co/4fUf8H7El7” #tcot

AmericanAntiFed
AmericanAntiFed

@marcylauren @TIMEPolitics How can GOP "plot" what they already have? I know for a fact they already have the technology. Red Herring Time

19871955
19871955

@SBroadie about friggin time! !

blackrepublican
blackrepublican

@SBroadie ...in other words they hired some crony ass contrators with deep political ties. They should just but up a Facebook page. Cheaper.

Dale Kaufman
Dale Kaufman

Don't believe any thing they say . They will say what ever it takes to win . Liars GOP can not be trusted!

ARTRaveler
ARTRaveler

You can set up all of the new organizations you want to but until you get a message that doesn't disparage everyone but old white men, you are throwing money in a well.  It wasn't the presentation or lack thereof.  It was the message that anyone who wasn't rich or wasn't as hate filled as some of the candidates, wasn't welcomed.  When you have a stage of candidates who come across as a krazy klown parade, why would anyone follow you?

kathy
kathy

??? I'm gone for a week and there's a whole new crowd of commenters.  (Evidently part of Patrick Ruffini's mission is to go visiting blogs and comment.)  works for me.

Both Romney and Gingrich have talked this week about being surprised that Romney lost.  Gingrinch's accurate take on this (Interview with Kornacki in Salon): <i>"You just sort of have to say that to some extent the degree to which we believed that the other side was kidding themselves, it turned out in fact in the real world – this is a part of what makes politics so fascinating – it turned out in the real world we were kidding ourselves."</i>

The real question is what the party is going to do to find the humility to realize that informed people chose to vote for Democrats.


righttuhealth
righttuhealth

@SBroadie why do you feel the republican party will serve yours and your children interest? look at what they're doing now.not Luv the harp

tgodefroy
tgodefroy

will this get rid of the racism and bigotry that cost them the last election?

Ryan Bliss
Ryan Bliss

Maybe they will learn something about actual science through osmosis.

frijolita
frijolita

@ted you stop! that's not lolz!!

Dennis Coolhand Tillman
Dennis Coolhand Tillman

Without factual information - something they hate to use - they will not be successful.

Sportanicus
Sportanicus

@Timodc @timodc @michaelscherer @DanaPerino DC consultants - don't see how that could go wrong

sonjaconger
sonjaconger

@DanRiehl Let's hope it's not Orca Part 2

Shannon Barker
Shannon Barker

It's gonna take more than a tech-savvy infrastructure to help the republicans out.

Ryan England
Ryan England

Funny how it is - twenty/thirty years ago, it was the G.O.P's techniques that had the Dems scambling.

JimmyZuma
JimmyZuma

@aterkel "If we just get them computer thingies, we can win!" #RNCFail

Rachel421
Rachel421

They will utterly fail as they are entirely missing the point:  They will never have an "infrastructure to train and nurture the next generation" if they never change their message to appeal to that next generation.  Recruiting some young volunteers and becoming tech-savvy is not the same as courting the ideals of younger people.   THAT would entail alienating their base, which is still almost exclusively angry old white men who are still reeling from the social changes of the 1960s.  An increasingly secular, non-white, LGBT-friendly, environmentally-conscious, pro-sex, pro-female group of people are not suddenly going to vote for the GOP just because the GOP is more visible on the networking sites.  



vstillwell
vstillwell

So, they're taking their message of school spending is wasteful and poor people suck to new digital heights. Yeah, that's great! As far as mobilizing the base, the Republican base always votes and is always motivated, so what's the point? 

TyPollard
TyPollard

@mantisdragon91 

Young tech savvy Republicans would be best served by having it out with the anti-science anti-math anti progress wing of their party. The problem is that this wing is the vast majority of their motivated base. Any move to improve the "messaging" will alienate these Einsteins.

hivemaster
hivemaster

@Sparrow55 Exactly.  One of my favorite quotes is from the song Closing Time.  "Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end".  The Dem's new beginning is coming from the end of the beginning brought about by Reagan figuratively getting into bed with Jerry Falwell.  The benefit of the social conservatives is now a trap to the GOP.  It's a shrinking segment repelling the youth voters, but one they cannot do without.

sacredh
sacredh

Lol. Seriously? The only two states that Romney flipped were Indiana and North Carolina. Those aren't democratic states. They are traditional republican states that went back to being republican after ONE cycle in the democratic column. Obama won every swing state but North Carolina and yes, North Carolina is now a swing state. Ohio? Gone. Florida? Gone. New Mexico? Gone. Colorado? Gone. Nevada? Gone. Virginia? Gone. The Tea Party has won more states for the democtrats than they have for the republicans.



Hollywooddeed
Hollywooddeed

@svt1999 Gee, and all this time I thought he just pointed out the stupid things Willard said.  Don't be bitter.  We have a great President.

PatrickRuffini
PatrickRuffini

@jbroander Got your email. Will be back in touch soon!

AfGuy
AfGuy

@retiredvet

Step 1 - buy more lipstick.

Because, of course, what that pig needs is more of it... or a different color, maybe...

The problem couldn't be that, underneath everything, it's still a pig of a party... could it?

brianrants
brianrants

@blackrepublican @SBroadie The question is: what is the conservative value prop? What is differentiator? Not how we deliver it (tactics).

brianrants
brianrants

@blackrepublican @SBroadie My fear is we get a "Microsoft Surface" instead of an "Apple iPad" out of the process. Me-too technology.

brianrants
brianrants

@blackrepublican @SBroadie Ever heard the phrase "Good enough for government work?" Ya.

Step11
Step11

@Rachel421 Totally agree, the way that they're looking at this is means looking at a larger picture as a whole.  Increasing one's visibility doesn't mean that you're going to have people immediately on your side - the internet has given a voice to many people that were unrepresented or deemed "too fringe" before its rise - for better or for worse - and made the world a much more diverse place to live in than anything anyone could have imagined.

Unfortunately, the Republicans have used it to empower their base and aren't moving forward with this shift - look at their shrinking base and how it correlates to their views on issues like immigration, poverty and LGTB - these people now have a voice and they're making themselves heard.  With how the Republicans presented themselves during the primaries and the election, they've shown themselves as being tone deaf and are stuck in the mentality that they still don't matter.

 I think they've got a shot at things when they see the bigger picture and see that this isn't a bigger billboard to advertise on - it's a two way media that will respond to intolerance, ignorance or just plain stupidity.

IndyLoo2
IndyLoo2

@brianrants @blackrepublican @sbroadie my thoughts EXACTLY!