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Get wired or wither: GOP must overhaul digital operations to avoid future Election Day disasters
The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.
Republican pollsters, data gatherers, analysts, number-crunchers and other members of the party's behind-the-scenes apparatus are openly acknowledging how badly they were whipped in 2012 by President Obama's political machine.
In old school and new school politics - knocking on doors and connecting with voters on Twitter, respectively - the Republican Party found itself several steps behind the Obama campaign, which took its 2008 approach and improved upon it.
"You will not find a single Republican who thinks we're getting these things right," Ben Domenech, editor of the daily political newsletter The Transom, said Tuesday as part of a Heritage Foundation panel that met to discuss how far behind Republicans have fallen in digital politics and what can be done about it.
One part of a complex solution, several panelists said, can be found in Democrats' loss in 2004, when then-President George W. Bush bested John F. Kerry, and what the defeated party did afterward. In the years following that election, Democrats not only launched their "50-state strategy" that helped Mr. Obama win previously red states such as North Carolina, but they also embraced new political consultants and other figures to help reinvent the party.
"If we don't seize the opportunity in the same way, we're going to be in some trouble," said Patrick Ruffini, a Republican strategist and president of Engage, a D.C. political media firm.
Younger Republicans, Mr. Ruffini said, need to spearhead new voter outreach efforts and help improve the party's data-collection and polling.
"It's up to us to start new [efforts], not wait for a big donor to come fund one," he said.
To its credit, the Republican Party isn't ignoring the fact that the Obama campaign seemed better organized and much more equipped to attract new voters and ensure that its 2008 constituency again came to the polls.
In last week's 98-page election post-mortem, formally known as "The Growth and Opportunity Project," Republican leaders didn't sugarcoat the issue.
"Democrats had the clear edge on new media and ground game, in terms of both reach and effectiveness. Obama's campaign knocked on twice as many doors as the Romney campaign," the report read in part. "The president's campaign significantly changed the makeup of the national electorate by unleashing a barrage of human and technological resources previously unseen in a presidential contest."
Republicans also conceded that "there are many lessons to be learned" by examining the Obama campaign's approach.
While figuring out more effective ways to use Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and other online tools is an important part of the puzzle, the failed Mitt Romney campaign also fell victim to poor polling data, panelists at Tuesday's event said.The campaign, for example, was under the impression it had a real chance of prevailing in states such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin - both of which went for the president by wide margins.
At the heart of the problem, some analysts say, is that the Romney camp relied on models assuming voter turnout simply wouldn't be as high as it was in 2008.
That turned out not to be the case. In some key demographics, such as young voters, Mr. Obama actually got more votes than he did four years ago."When you have instances where people look at the data and have bad expectations about the data then we have problems," said Alex Lundry, vice president and director of research at TargetPoint Consulting, a market research firm.
Mr. Lundry characterized the issue, in part, as "a problem of culture and literacy," with some within the Republican Party establishment simply unable to put into proper perspective the data they're looking at.
The ingrained attitude of the Republican Party also is partly to blame, said Justin Hart, a digital strategist who joined the Romney campaign about two months before Election Day.Even after losing efforts such as the ones in 2008 and 2012, Mr. Hart said, many within the party aren't willing to cut ties with some of the same political figures who have been on the scene for decades.
"We love the notion of loyalty and we think that's part of human nature," he said. "We've got to hire technologists first and politicos second. That wasn't the case in [the Romney] campaign."
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
About the Author
Ben Wolfgang covers the White House for The Washington Times.
Before joining the Times in March 2011, Ben spent four years as a political reporter at the Republican-Herald in Pottsville, Pa.
He can be reached at email@example.com.
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