Editor’s note: This is the third piece in a four-part series about the future of the Republican Party.
Never bring a knife to a gun fight, they say.
Yet for the past few election cycles, that has been exactly what the Republican Party has been doing. All things being equal, they have started every election at a tactical disadvantage since 2006. The most glaring problems have been in technology and political consultancy, the main tools of campaigning.
In 2004, the Democratic Party lost a golden opportunity to defeat President George W. Bush in his battle for re-election, and one of the biggest reasons why was because the Republicans had a similar tactical advantage over the Democrats.
That was the first real “data” election, with Karl Rove and the Republican National Committee spending millions of dollars to acquire consumer data, which they then cross-referenced with their existing databases to create specific models for registered voters.
The president’s campaign then used this data to target and persuade potential supporters. This was an advantage over the more traditional campaigning the Democrats were doing, and many political observers credit this sophistication with putting Bush over the top in several key states.
The operative class also favored the Republicans that year. Legions of seasoned veterans and new, talented strategists combined with the ruthlessly efficient Bush campaign to create a disciplined organization that was entirely focused on winning.
That election was important because tactics tipped the scales. The fundamentals of that race were dead even, and without that advantage the Republicans would not have won.
After that election, though, something changed. The experienced, successful operatives who had built Bush’s world class political operation decided (understandably) to cash in that success. They started consulting firms, or they went into the private sector. They made a lot of money based on their expertise.
This both removed some of the most skilled and experienced operatives from the machinery of trench-warfare political campaigning, while also changing the motivations of these new top-flight consultancy shops from winning elections to making money.
Meanwhile, the Democrats became intensely motivated to strike back. They took a closer look at Howard Dean’s primary campaign in 2004 and started to learn some lessons about why he did well. They started thinking differently. They learned what Rove had done with data and decided to build on it and create new strategies and the tactics to carry them out. And an entire generation of operatives who wanted to win more than they wanted to make money started to participate in Democratic politics.
In 2006, the Democrats practiced many of these new strategies as they struck back against President Bush, retaking the House of Representatives.
But the real payoff was in 2008, as Barack Obama’s campaign put all of those lessons into practice and ran circles around the GOP. While Republican consultants were charging huge fees on more traditional tools like direct mail and television, the Democrats invested in grassroots oriented (read: cheap) things like grassroots organization and online campaigning.
The Republican campaign playbook was outflanked by hungry strategists who found new tools that did a better job at identifying and persuading voters for a lot less money.
In 2010 and 2012 Republicans regained much of their footing in these respects, catching up to where the Democrats had been. But the Democrats didn’t stand still. As we just saw, they remained as hungry for victory as they were in 2008, and President Obama’s re-election campaign continued to move the ball forward.
Mitt Romney’s campaign was full of similar people with a real talent for innovation, but they simply didn’t have the same amount of time or resources to work with to truly compete.
Today, the tactical advantage remains a real threat to Republicans everywhere. Far too often, candidates across the country do not take seriously the changing political landscape taking shape around them and continue to rely on antiquated campaign methods and overpriced consultants who make an insane amount of money on those methods.
After all, those things have worked for decades, and understanding innovations in campaigning requires skilled, educated, talented people. Even proving and understanding the value of these new tools is a difficult task.
Luckily, the Democrats have proven utility, and the Republican consultancy was just wiped out from top to bottom. If Republican candidates and operatives learn these lessons and embrace new ideas, new people and new campaign tools, this gap will close and may even reverse itself.
Failure to do so resigns the party to starting campaigns off at a disadvantage in perpetuity.