One week after Barack Obama thumped Mitt Romney to secure the presidency, I pedaled over to the headquarters of the Reserve Officers Association, a six-story building in a prime spot across the street from the Capitol and next door to the Supreme Court.
Inside, round tables were set up for a lunch hosted by The Heritage Foundation, the longstanding conservative think tank that, within a month, would replace its outgoing, aging president, Ed Fuelner, with Sen. Jim DeMint, the South Carolina Republican and a conservative firebrand. It was a bold stroke that energized the Heritage flock and repositioned the group to play a more pivotal role in Washington and beyond.
But as I sat among the Heritage’s luncheon crowd — part of a daylong anti-poverty forum — a series of more immediate and pressing questions came to mind: How will the Republican Party and the broader conservative movement it’s meant to embody fix their problems with the poor, the disadvantaged, women and minorities? How will the Republican Party evolve?
Romney’s loss forced the GOP to recognize that its support is built on a shrinking base of aging, ethnically monolithic, and geographically isolated voters — while the Democrats have amassed a coalition of growing and engaged constituencies. As one very senior Senate Republican aide put it to me, the party can’t win national and statewide elections just with “older white people” anymore.
The path back for Republicans, and for conservatives more broadly, is as much cultural as it is tactical. Tactically, they need better candidates, and younger, more diverse people at all levels: political consultants, field operatives, grassroots volunteers. But to attract organic support from young people, women and minorities and continue harvesting new faces, conservatism needs an attitude adjustment: get hungry, get humble, and get to know more people who aren’t like you.
A cultural shift in the GOP — more youth and more real relationships with people outside the traditional conservative demographic — will go a long way toward fixing the party’s other big problem: the idea that you can persuade people by talking at them, and not with them.
All of this is set against the backdrop of a party at odds with itself. Many in the GOP have recommended a more moderate tone, yet one of the first marquee elections that will get national attention is the Virginia governor’s race, in which the party’s presumptive nominee is firebrand Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. Cuccinelli has dismissed calls for “change, re-evaluation, remake, retreat.”
On Capitol Hill, a big driver of the fiscal cliff fiasco, for example, and of potential further lurches rightward on immigration, is the GOP’s geographic divide. The House Republican majority is built in large part on domination of southern states. But the pull to the right that region exerts on the party works against the GOP on the national level, where it must appeal to a broader cross section of voters if it wants to seriously entertain the idea of winning back the presidency.
At the Heritage forum, Jennifer Marshall, an earnest, youthful and intense woman who oversees Heritage’s domestic policy shop, gave brief remarks to the luncheon crowd. She lamented that “when it comes to fighting poverty, too few Americans look to conservatives for answers.”
“We’ve been missing a melody that catches on,” she said. “We’ve lacked the narrative that captures the moral imagination of the American public.”
Being the poverty-fighting party isn’t just about winning over lower-income voters — it’s a way for the GOP to do better with people who, regardless of their income, care about poverty: minorities and suburban women are two of the most obvious groups.
After the lunch, I was introduced to a Heritage researcher who talked on and on for several minutes about how calls for the GOP to reach out to minorities were misguided, because, he said, most minorities are not going to vote for Republicans anyway.
The researcher prattled on, even after a friend tried to interrupt to introduce me to a young man named Ja’Ron Smith. Smith is a 30-year-old Howard University graduate whom the ultra-conservative Republican Study Conference tasked with overseeing an anti-poverty program. Smith’s presence offered an unusual and intriguing juxtaposition: a young black man doing work to help lower-income people among the most hardcore right-wingers in the House, a hothouse of Tea Party sentiment.
Smith is the kind of person who should be a star at a gathering of conservative think-tankers and policy experts. Yet the Heritage researcher droned on, oblivious to Smith’s presence.
I thought of the Heritage researcher a few days later as I sat in another conference room in another conservative think tank across town from Capitol Hill. It was a panel discussion at the American Enterprise Institute exploring the GOP’s miserable showing in 2012.
AEI scholar Henry Olsen showed an odd cartoon short, in which a few conservatives try to figure out how to appeal to women. The point, Olsen explained to the largely white audience of about 50 or 60 people, was that the men in the cartoon kept talking over the one woman in their group.
“What we saw in the video is the inability to listen. The video started off with six guys and one women trying to design a product for women, and none of them would let her talk,” Olsen said. “The Republican Party has for too long talked at people rather than spoken with people. And I think that is one of the main sources of the disconnect.”
That insight stood out as I spoke to key members of the Obama campaign’s senior staff in the following days. “Listening” to prospective voters had been a core value of the Obama campaign’s ethic — managers listened to field staff and volunteers, and trained them, in turn, to listen to the folks in their neighborhoods who were possible supporters.
“The biggest thing is listening and not just barking at [voters]. People don’t want to know our 10 point plan,” Jeremy Bird, the 34-year-old organizer who oversaw the Obama campaign’s field operation, told me. “They want to know that we’re listening to them, and that last time we talked to them, and they told us their son was an Iraq war vet, we listened to that and therefore we’re going to talk to them about that and not come at them like political marketers.”
“That was just huge for us. People stopped thinking of us as political marketers once they knew we were listening to them.”
In the end, the Obama crew wedded astute listening to a magnificent ground game built on technology and data, completely outclassing the Romney campaign by increasing turnout, particularly among minorities and youth, in key swing states. Black turnout in Ohio, for example, went from 11 percent of the electorate in 2008 to 15 percent in 2012.
Nationally, the country’s biggest and fastest-growing minority, Latinos, went for Obama 71 percent to 27 percent, marking an enormous shift in just eight years. In 2004, President George W. Bush got between 40 and 44 percent of the Latino vote. But then, after the bitter immigration reform fight of 2007, in which anti-immigrant voices gained ground on the right, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) stumbled badly among Hispanics in the 2008 election, getting only 31 percent.
Every time a party loses a presidential election, there is a funeral procession that goes on for too long and that brings out all the Chicken Littles. The GOP’s 2012 version has been a particularly intense session.
“Our party is dead unless there’s a shakeup,” said Carlos Sierra, a Texas operative who ran insurgent Republican presidential candidate Buddy Roemer’s campaign, at a November conference hosted by Harvard University to assess the election.
In the immediate days after the election, there was talk on the right of soul searching. Yet the conservative soul has gone relatively unexamined. Most of the conversation within the party has fit into a series of machine-minded buckets: tactics, message and policy. The GOP needs to overhaul its ground game and its use of data to vastly improve the way it communicates its principles and policies, and will have to shift its stance on a few issues, namely immigration and gay marriage. In addition, it will need a far more dynamic candidate at the top of the ticket in 2016.
But constituencies build like a snowball, and they need critical mass to keep on growing. For any significant number of black voters (or Latino voters, or struggling middle class voters) to start considering the Republican Party, they will need to see others they know, or others they can relate to, moving that way as well.
It’s possible that Marco Rubio is the closest thing to a silver bullet for the GOP: a charismatic and hip young Latino with great communication and political skills. If he were to win the GOP nomination four years from now, and then the presidency, the GOP’s image would almost certainly be dramatically transformed. Maybe it’s just all about candidates.
But an inspiring, non-white candidate, on top of an improved message, better ground game and revamped positions only goes so far. At the grassroots level, ordinary people are influenced most by those they know best. The Obama campaign made this a cornerstone of its ground game, building tech tools as a means of enabling supporters to reach out and influence their friends by phone or through social media. While much of the talk on the right has centered on tactics and techniques, there are a few voices pointing out the importance of building actual human relationships.
One of them is Bob Woodson, a unique figure among African Americans involved in grassroots anti-poverty work. Woodson worked in the civil rights movement in West Chester, Pa., in the 1960s, and then went to work for the Urban League, the venerable civil rights organization. But he quickly grew tired of the poverty “industry,” as he referred to it, and decided that he wanted to advocate a more conservative form of anti-poverty work, with a focus on building up people’s capacity and self-reliance.
Woodson worked closely with Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), during the presidential campaign, and was key to putting together the audience for Ryan’s speech in Cleveland on poverty just two weeks before the election. Woodson is now getting fresh attention and respect from some conservatives for the first time since he worked closely with President Ronald Reagan in the ‘80s, and with Rep. Jack Kemp when he was in Congress and then served as the head of the Department of Housing and Development. At a dinner in December honoring Kemp, Ryan mentioned Woodson in his speech twice.
“When you ask people in neighborhoods, ‘Who are their heroes?,’ they don’t identify with Michael Jordan or people who—Colin Powell. They don’t identify with people who are so removed from their reality,” Woodson told me. “They’re more inspired by people who are closest to them. They are the ones who are the real leaders.”
“We think that the way you attract and appeal to people is through identity politics. That’s not helpful at all. People are smarter than that.”
Woodson believes that if minorities and youth continue to see only Democrats speaking to them — in their neighborhoods, on their social media networks and elsewhere — and continue to see older whites as the only representatives of the Republican Party, that will significantly limit any potential growth for the GOP with these groups.
It will take relationships to bridge the gap.
But Woodson was blunt when I asked him how he felt in the days before the election about the idea of Romney winning the White House.
“It was my worst nightmare for Romney to be successful without having to address the issue of poverty,” Woodson told me. “Neither party is talking about poor people … It wasn’t on Obama’s agenda. Conservatives and Republicans didn’t talk about that either. It was as if low-income people did not exist. And I thought that was unfortunate.”
In the end, it’s not that Republicans don’t care about poverty, or that they don’t know people of different races, creeds and income levels, or that white liberals are really less insulated or isolated from such realities. It’s simply that conservatives must do better.
“Republicans have done a pathetic job of reaching out to people of color,” former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) said on Fox News on election night.
Woodson warned that “outreach” has to begin from the ground up, and that conservatives can’t approach it paternalistically (an approach that has bedeviled liberals, too).
“You need to come with an open heart, to really believe that you have got as much to gain from this relationship,” Woodson said. “If you don’t come with an attitude of, ‘I am going to learn something from this,’ it’s patronizing. I would rather you stay home.”
The Obama campaign’s ground game was built around the idea of relationships. Campaign staffers could not get to know every targeted voter, but they leveraged data and technology tools to reach out to undecided voters through preexisting relationships, seeing that as a far more effective tool for recruiting many voters than mere communiques from their own campaign.
“A TV ad is intrinsically non credible, even if it’s true,” said Obama digital director Teddy Goff.
Goff said that many voters in focus groups, when shown ads from both campaigns with competing claims, threw up their hands and said, essentially, “It’s all bullshit.”
“The best thing we can do at least now with the technology we’ve got is try to get people talking to their friends,” Goff said. “That’s when you have to get into the sort of nitty gritty of how these different [online and social] networks operate and the sort of language and vernacular of each of them and how you can actually be a part of it.”
Using tools built by its in-house data and tech teams, the Obama campaign relied on the efforts of its supporters at the grassroots level, empowering them and deploying them to win over new voters.
It was the same community organizer ethos that drove the 2008 campaign. But it took getting whupped twice by this model for Republicans to finally wake up and realize that Sarah Palin’s mockery of Obama’s community organizing days was, in fact, tone deaf — and had led the party to dismiss exactly the kind of outreach it should have been pursuing.
The Obama campaign did a masterful job of organizing and analyzing data to facilitate this process. Journalists Sasha Issenberg, Alexis Madrigal and others have written at length about the tactical and technological wizardry of the Obama campaign. There also has been much talk on the Republican side of the need to copy this approach.
But a remark by Obama campaign’s chief technology officer, the tattooed, pierced former Threadless CTO Harper Reed, caught my attention. Reed told Mother Jones that he seized on the idea of “micro-listening” as a foundational value behind the way the campaign built all of its technology.
In June 2011, about one month after taking the job on the Obama campaign — his first job on any political campaign ever — Reed went to Foo Camp, an annual get-together of the technorati organized by Tim O’Reilly, founder of O’Reilly Media and an influential advocate for open source technology.
I called Reed to find out more about what he learned. He told me that at one session, he asked for input from others.
“I sat there and I basically said, ‘I’m the CTO for Obama’s reelection campaign, and I want to know what you guys think we should be focusing on,’” Reed said.
O’Reilly sat across from him and said, Reed recalled, “You hear a lot about micro-targeting in campaigns. I want to suggest that there should be more micro-listening.”
“That really resonated with me,” Reed said. “How do I activate those people to tell me more?’”
Reed said there was a web-centric ethic that drove not only the campaign’s digital and social media strategy, but also its ground game, communications and fundraising.
“If there’s anything that the Internet is, it’s about democratizing resources, right? It’s giving everyone access to all the information,” Reed said. “Like look at Wikipedia. My first job out of college was World Book. World Book you paid for access. Britannica, you paid for access. They opened it up. And not only that, they controlled what you had access to and what the truth was. Wikipedia was just like, ‘Let’s just let everyone do it. Everyone has access, everyone can edit it, everyone can help us define what the truth is, and we can exist as this community to address this.’”
“Threadless was very much the same way,” he continued. “Threadless was the place where I really cut my teeth in regards to social software, which was, ‘We are going to give the tools that a normal company would use to define what is a good product, and we’re going to give them to the users and we’re going to let them tell us.’ And so you kind of flipped the direction of the information. Rather than, if you’re working at the Gap: ‘We are the taste makers at the top. We tell our consumers what they’re going to buy.’ Whereas Threadless, we said, ‘You guys are the tastemakers. You tell us what we should make for you.’”
Reed’s tech team took this approach as it went through iterations of Dashboard, a software platform that served as the online hub for volunteers.
“We listened aggressively. I mean aggressively. To the point where people had Google alerts for errors that they expected. [Staffers] had searches on Twitter that were built specifically to ensure that things were going well. If someone said, ‘I just tried to give $5 to the Obama campaign and it didn’t work,’ we would be alerted very quickly to that.”
There are limits to the bottom-up doctrine. Obama supporters could tell the campaign how to better help it spread the word about Obama, but they could not dictate by popular vote what the president’s positions on issue after issue would be.
A few days earlier, I had asked Goff whether there was any time during the campaign when their vast tech operation and their “aggressive” listening revealed something that they didn’t know, and allowed them to make a course correction, for example, around crafting messages for particular groups of voters.
“It’s less like there was a eureka moment of, ‘Oh my God, everybody wants this,’ and more of a just constant reading and interpreting data, every day for 20 months,” Goff said.
Goff said regular engagement gave the campaign a good sense of how to motivate supporters, of what worked and what didn’t. Reed added that the process of soliciting feedback from volunteers and from voters was “incredibly manual.” The tech team had someone produce a daily digest of all the comments sent to the campaign from volunteers on the ground, and merged that with what it was hearing from the other parts of the campaign staff in Chicago.
Obama campaign staff also looked for supporters who were the most outspoken and effective on Twitter, Facebook and other social media, and reached out to them to offer support and give them more information to disseminate.
Reed pooh-poohed digital for digital’s sake and argued that the values and ethos that guided the Obama campaign’s tech strategy was the key differentiator from the Romney campaign (Reed and Goff also acknowledged that their extra year or so of lead time that the Romney campaign didn’t have was a huge factor).
“Obviously this is way less sophisticated than I think people would like it to be,” Reed said. “I think people think of some like magic robots in the sky that we just pointed at people who were into Obamacare and then like anointed them and we gave them, like, secrets. But that’s 2016. 2016 that’s what we’ll do.”
A PERMANENT GROUND GAME
The Obama campaign’s online efforts supplemented a ground game — Bird’s domain — that saturated the key areas of swing states with volunteers and paid staff. The goal of the Obama campaign’s staff (they didn’t always achieve it, according to Bird) was to have one campaign volunteer for every 50 targeted voters, while the Romney campaign had a ratio of about 1 to 1,000. The effect of this was that the most targeted voters were hearing — electronically or in person — from Obama supporters with whom they already had a relationship, or who were from the area and with whom they could establish a connection quickly.
“Some of them that didn’t know [the undecided voters] at the beginning knew them by the end, because they had just worked the area,” Bird said. “But even if they didn’t know them, they knew the church that they went to, the school they went to, their kids had played football together.”
The Obama campaign began placing organizers in key states in April 2011, a full year before Mitt Romney would even win the GOP nomination. Those organizers plugged themselves into the volunteer networks, known as neighborhood teams, that were in some cases still operating after the 2008 election.
It was quite a contrast to the Republican model. Romney’s campaign parachuted operatives into swing states in the late spring and summer of 2012, and it commenced throwing phone calls and door knocks at its lists.
“You come in, make phone calls, you don’t really know who you’re talking to on the other end of the line,” Bird said, characterizing the way he thought of the Republican ground game.
“Whereas when you look at overall neighborhood team approach, that neighborhood team leader is responsible for their neighborhoods in six or eight or 10 precincts, and they have to own them, and they have to figure out who lives there,” he added. “And it’s not always going to be, especially given where our voters are, it’s not a homogenous area. So they have to find volunteers that look like that neighborhood.”
One Republican operative, who could not talk on the record about the party’s failings because he was looking for a new job, said that “the [Obama] ground game was the message.”
The campaign did persuasion by proxy, through personal relationships, and organized its ground troops by putting an emphasis on finding ways to hear their concerns and to hand over creative control to the volunteers. The message sent to voters and to volunteers was, “You matter.”
Goff said he thinks that even if Republicans catch up on the targeting side, Democrats will continue to have an advantage in using technology to motivate and persuade.
“I think the Internet is largely driven by values like openness and transparency and participation,” Goff said. “And as long as that remains the case, all of the smart tactics in the world isn’t going to get them caught up.”
“If they don’t really believe in citizen involvement and grassroots activism and all that, it’s just not going to take them all that far.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), in a December interview with The Huffington Post, said there are cultural differences between the two parties that have held the GOP back in terms of organizing and coalition building.
“One of the characteristics of the right is that it’s much harder to have social networking, because people on the right like being iconoclastic,” Gingrich said. “On the left you have a natural grouping. You have the sense of, ‘What’s this week’s cause? And we did turtles this week. What can we do next week?’”
Reed, however, dismissed the idea that what motivated Democrats was all that different from what might motivate Republicans.
“If there was one thing we did different than anybody else it was just resources. Jim Messina and those guys said early on I’m going to bet a lot on technology, and that was it. I don’t think this is a uniquely Democrat thing either,” Reed said. “If you’ve grown up on the Internet, or if you’ve been on the Internet for a long time and built software there, you want to give tools to the users because they will do your job for you.”
All of this assumes that the GOP doesn’t exacerbate its problem with key voter groups in the years ahead. For example, the immigration fight to come has some Republicans openly worrying that the strident anti-everything voices in the House will do even further damage to the party’s relationship with Hispanics.
“I’m concerned,” the Republican operative told me. “It’s not like the House Republicans are just going to pass immigration and nobody’s going to say anything stupid.”
For much of the fiscal cliff fight, House Republicans were casting themselves as the champions of the rich who refused to allow taxes to go up on people making $1 million a year or more.
“We are going to be seen, more and more, as a bunch of extremists,” Rep. Steven LaTourette of Ohio fumed to the National Journal on the night that House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) “Plan B” bill — which would have extended the Bush tax cuts for everyone making less than $1 million a year — failed to pass.
The leading 2016 prospects on the Republican side have made clear that they intend to start steering the party away from the rocks. Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan both gave speeches at the annual Jack Kemp dinner in December that were directed at the middle class and the poor. Rubio, in particular, used his biography to connect with the powerless and those struggling to make it. It was an eloquent speech, but Rubio and the others are fighting against a dynamic years in the making. Even after its recent shellacking, it’s not clear what the Republican Party wants its ideas to accomplish beyond the creation of profits.
As for the president, there are fresh signs that he intends to try to use the grassroots network his campaign built as a tool during his second term, something he largely failed to do in his first. Four days before Christmas, Obama responded in a video to an online petition — made possible in September 2011 when the White House created such a system — requesting that he act on gun control in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shootings.
“Hey everybody,” Obama began. “Hundreds of thousands of you, from all 50 states, have signed petitions asking us to take serious steps to address the epidemic of gun violence in this country.”
“So I just wanted to take a moment today to respond and to let you know,” Obama said. “We hear you.”