It’s good practice for teams, businesses, and even political parties to learn as much from failure as they do from success. That was the principle Republicans applied after losing the White House in 2012, when under the leadership of Chairman Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee launched the Growth and Opportunity Project to study how the party could be more competitive. In the 2014 midterm elections two years later, that study and the changes Chairman Priebus implemented as a result paid off in spectacular fashion. At every level from state legislatures to the Congress, the Republican Party is today objectively the strongest it has been in generations.
After the victories of 2014 and 2015, Chairman Priebus understood that the inverse of the old adage is true as well—the party has a duty to learn as much from success as it does from failure. I was honored when he asked me to lead a project to surface the “lessons learned” from these campaigns. Our report, released this week, is the result of dozens of interviews with candidates, campaign managers, and campaign staff for Senate, House, and governors’ races across the country.
The more we learned, the more we were struck with the scale of the changes Republican candidates are navigating—changes in the political environment, in the technology and tactics of campaigns, and in the strategies required to win.
Perhaps the most historic and underappreciated of these changes is the political realignment that has taken place over the past eight years.
As we write in the report:
According to the Gallup Poll, the country has gone from 35 clearly Democrat states and five clearly Republican states in 2008 (as measured by party affiliation), to 14 Democrat states and 20 Republican states in 2015. That is a dramatic swing in the Republican direction.
[…] The GOP has also seen historic growth in state legislatures. Under Obama, the GOP went from 3,223 Republican legislators and 4,082 Democrat legislators at the beginning of the Obama administration to a complete reversal, with 4,113 Republicans and 3,165 Democrats. Republicans gained 890 legislative seats since the first Obama election. The Democrats had a net loss of 917 seats. […] To get a sense of the depth of the Democratic Party’s decay at the state legislative level in the Obama era, consider that since President Obama took office, 85 of 98 legislative bodies have become more Republican than they were when he was inaugurated.
This realignment has brought with it enormous opportunities for Republicans to expand their appeal to groups that have traditionally supported Democrats but many of which have been served poorly by bureaucratic socialism and the stagnation, frustration, and corruption that comes with it.
Contrary to the media-propagated notion that demographics doom Republicans in the long term, the surprising strides by a number of candidates in 2014 suggest that changing demographics offer a once-in-a-lifetime growth opportunity for Republicans if they learn that they can be very inclusive without compromising their principles.
As we write:
Demography is not destiny. Demography is opportunity. In Ohio, Governor John Kasich got 27 percent of the African American vote for re-election. In Texas, Senator John Cornyn became the first Republican in his state to beat his opponent 48-47 among Latino voters in Texas. He received 54 percent of the vote from Latino men.
Cory Gardner went from between 6 and 8 percent support among Colorado’s Latino voters in January to tying incumbent Senator Udall at 48-48 on Election Day. Colorado Republicans worked Pueblo, a largely Hispanic area they had traditionally ignored and which now has a Republican Latina state legislator and boosted Gardner’s vote above the historic pattern.
Also in Colorado Coffman’s surprisingly easy re-election was built in part on his learning Spanish and debating in it (his opponent was more fluent but Coffman got great credit for trying). Coffman also focused on the Ethiopian Christian community which invited him to four churches the last Sunday before the election while freezing out his opponent.
In Virginia, Congresswoman Barbara Comstock’s decisive win was helped by focused attention to Pakistani, Indian, Vietnamese, Korean and Latino voters.
In Texas, Senator John Cornyn won Asian-American voters, had a plurality of Hispanic voters and also had websites in Vietnamese and Hindi.
The Republican State Leadership Committee points to a surprising number of Republican minority state legislative victories. For example, the margin of control in the West Virginia House is a Republican African American woman. Republicans received an estimated 50 percent of the Asian American vote in 2014. There are more than 110 Republican minority state legislators and with each election the number grows. Leadership can translate demography into an opportunity, not a problem.
But as we also found, “If demography is not destiny, paying attention to minority voters may be. In every campaign we studied, there was a direct correlation between paying attention to minority communities, events, activities and key dates and the increase in votes…Showing up is the essential first step to building bridges to minority communities.” Inclusion is the key to growing a permanent governing majority.
Republicans candidates for every office from state legislatures to the presidency have the chance to build on these lessons in this year’s elections. And they ignore them at their own peril.
Among other lessons, a few are particularly important to remember at this point in the contests, as general election campaigns are beginning to take shape. In particular, what we learned renewed our conviction that big ideas matter, and that communicated well, they can be decisive.
As we write:
The right big idea or ideas, expressed in clear and simple language with the right tone, can win campaigns. Larry Hogan’s intense focus on cutting taxes while refusing to comment on controversial issues propelled him to a shockingly large and unexpected victory as Governor of Maryland. Maine Governor Paul LePage’s focus on welfare reform won the votes of a decisive block of voters that may have been the margin of victory in his reelection. And Matt Bevin’s focus on reform and smaller government led him to a stunning and surprisingly large victory in the Kentucky governor’s race. The right ideas can act as shields against attacks in addition to defining a positive vision. In Colorado, Cory Gardner seized the initiative and defined women’s health on his terms before the left could push him into a “War on Women” defensive position. That focus on ideas, language, and tone was worth more than all of the defensive ads he could have bought after he was negatively defined. It may have clinched his election to the Senate.
Anyone concerned about the future of the Republican Party would benefit from reading these 2016 Election Principles. Candidates up and down the ballot owe thanks to Chairman Priebus for his commitment to learning from the past and building a party for the future.