Can the Republicans be Saved From Obsolescence?
Originally published February 14, 2013
One afternoon last month, I paid a visit to two young Republicans named Bret Jacobson and Ian Spencer, who work in a small office in Arlington, Va., situated above an antique store and adjacent to a Japanese auto shop. Their five-man company, Red Edge, is a digital-advocacy group for conservative causes, and their days are typically spent designing software applications for groups like the Heritage Foundation, the Republican Governors Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Lately, however, Jacobson and Spencer have taken up evangelizing — and the sermon, delivered day after day to fellow conservatives in the form of a 61-point presentation, is a pitiless we-told-you-so elucidation of the ways in which Democrats have overwhelmed Republicans with their technological superiority.
They walked me through a series of slides showing the wide discrepancies between the two campaigns. “And just to make them feel really bad,” Jacobson said as he punched another image onto the overhead screen. “We say, ‘Just wait — this is the most important slide.’ And this is what kills them, because conservatives always look at young voters like the hot girl they could never date.” He read aloud from the text: “1.25 million more young people supported Obama in 2012 over 2008.”
In the light of his Apple monitor, Jacobson’s grin took on a Luciferian glow. He is 33, wiry and well dressed and has the twitchy manner of a highly caffeinated techie. “And then we continue with the cavalcade of pain,” he said. The next chart showed that while the Romney campaign raised slightly more money from its online ads than it spent on them, Obama’s team more than doubled the return on its online-ad investment.
Spencer chimed in: “That’s when one of our clients moaned, ‘It’s even worse than I thought.’ ” Spencer, who is 29, possesses the insectlike eyes of a committed programmer. He and Jacobson are alumni of the University of Oregon, where they both worked on the Commentator, a conservative alternative paper whose slogan was, “Free Minds, Free Markets, Free Booze.”
“Then, once people think we’ve gotten them through the worst,” Jacobson said, “we pile on more — just the way Obama did.” He put up Slide 26, titled, “Running Up the Score.” “Obama was the very first candidate to appear on Reddit. We ask our clients, ‘Do you know what Reddit is?’ And only one of them did. Then we show them this photo of Obama hugging his wife with the caption ‘Four more years’ — an image no conservative likes. And we tell them, ‘Because of the way the Obama campaign used things like Reddit, that photo is the single-most popular image ever seen on Twitter or Facebook.’ Just to make sure there’s plenty of salt in the wound.”
Back in August 2011, Jacobson wrote an op-ed in Forbes alerting Republicans to Obama’s lead on the digital front. His warnings were disregarded. Then last summer, he and Spencer approached the conservative super PAC American Crossroads with their digital-tool-building strategies and, they say, were politely ignored. It’s understandable, then, that a touch of schadenfreude is evident when Jacobson and Spencer receive the policy-group gurus and trade-association lobbyists who file into Red Edges’s office to receive a comeuppance.
“Business is booming for us,” Jacobson said. “We’ll double or triple our bottom line this year, easily. But this isn’t about getting new business. We need the entire right side of the aisle to get smart fast. And the only way they can do that is to appreciate how big the chasm was.”
Exhibit A is the performance of the Romney brain trust, which has suffered an unusually vigorous postelection thrashing for badly losing a winnable race. Criticism begins with the candidate — a self-described data-driven chief executive who put his trust in alarmingly off-the-mark internal polls and apparently did not think to ask his subordinates why, for example, they were operating on the assumption that fewer black voters would turn out for Obama than in 2008. Romney’s senior strategist, Stuart Stevens, may well be remembered by historians, as one House Republican senior staff member put it to me, “as the last guy to run a presidential campaign who never tweeted.” (“It was raised many times with him,” a senior Romney official told me, “and he was very categorical about not wanting to and not thinking it was worth it.”)
Under the stewardship of Zac Moffatt, whose firm, Targeted Victory, commandeered the 2012 digital operations of the Romney campaign, American Crossroads and the Republican National Committee, Team Romney managed to connect with 12 million Facebook friends, triple that of Obama’s operation in 2008; but Obama in 2012 accrued 33 million friends and deployed them as online ambassadors who in turn contacted their Facebook friends, thereby demonstrably increasing the campaign’s get-out-the-vote efforts in a way that dwarfed the Republicans’. While Romney’s much-hyped get-out-the-vote digital tool, Orca, famously crashed on Election Day, Obama’s digital team unveiled Narwhal, a state-of-the-art data platform that gave every member of the campaign instant access to continuously updated information on voters, volunteer availability and phone-bank activity. And despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars, the Romney television-ad-making apparatus proved to be no match for the Obama operation, which enlisted Rentrak, the data corporation for satellite and cable companies, through which it accrued an entirely new layer of information about each and every consumer, giving the campaign the ability to customize cable TV ads.
“They were playing chess while we were playing checkers,” a senior member of the campaign’s digital team somberly told another top Romney aide shortly after the election. Later, the top aide would participate in a postelection forum with Obama’s campaign manager. He told me (albeit, like a few people I spoke to, under the condition that he not be identified criticizing his party), “I remember thinking, when Jim Messina was going over the specifics of how they broke down and targeted the electorate: ‘I can’t play this game. I have to play a different game, so that I don’t look like an idiot in front of all these people.’ ”
But the problem for the G.O.P. extends well beyond its flawed candidate and his flawed operation. The unnerving truth, which the Red Edge team and other younger conservatives worry that their leaders have yet to appreciate, is that the Republican Party’s technological deficiencies barely begin to explain why the G.O.P. has lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. The party brand — which is to say, its message and its messengers — has become practically abhorrent to emerging demographic groups like Latinos and African-Americans, not to mention an entire generation of young voters. As one of the party’s most highly respected strategists told me: “It ought to concern people that the most Republican part of the electorate under Ronald Reagan were 18-to-29-year-olds. And today, people I know who are under 40 are embarrassed to say they’re Republicans. They’re embarrassed! They get harassed for it, the same way we used to give liberals a hard time.”
It was not long after the election that elder statesmen of the G.O.P. began offering assurances that all would soon be right. But younger Republicans were not buying it. On Dec. 6, Moffatt addressed an audience of party digital specialists at the R.N.C.’s Capitol Hill Club. Moffatt spoke confidently about how, among other things, the Romney digital team had pretty much all the same tools the Obama campaign possessed. Bret Jacobson was shocked when he read about Moffatt’s claim the next day. “That’s like saying, ‘This Potemkin village will bring us all prosperity!’ ” Jacobson told me. “There’s something to be said for putting on a happy face — except when it makes you sound like Baghdad Bob.”
A few days after the Moffatt gathering, the R.N.C.’s chairman, Reince Priebus, announced that the committee would conduct a wide-ranging investigation — called the Growth and Opportunity Project — into the ways the party was going astray. To guide the investigation were familiar names, like the former Bush White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, the longtime Florida operative Sally Bradshaw and the R.N.C. veteran Henry Barbour. Erik Telford, the 28-year-old founder of the RightOnline bloggers’ convention, told me that he found himself wondering aloud: “Do you want an aggressive investigation from people who’ve built their careers on asking skeptical questions? Or do you want a report from people who are symptomatic of what’s gone wrong?”
Equally galling to younger Republicans was the op-ed Stuart Stevens wrote in The Washington Post on Nov. 28. In it, Romney’s top strategist struck an unrepentant tone, proudly noting that the candidate “carried the majority of middle-class voters” and that the party therefore “must be doing something right.” From her office near the Capitol, Kristen Soltis Anderson, a 28-year-old G.O.P. pollster, tried not to come unglued. “But you didn’t win the election,” she told me she thought at the time. “I’m really glad you scored that touchdown in the third quarter, I am — but you lost the game!”
Anderson is a fantasy-football fanatic, with the rat-a-tat argumentative cadence that gives her away as a former high-school debater. Upon graduating from college, she became the lead singer of the Frustrations, a rock-ska group that folded, as only a D.C.-based band could, when one member decided to attend law school and another needed more time to study for the bar exam. Anderson, for her part, is now a pollster and vice president of the Winston Group. Like the Red Edge partners and virtually every other young Republican with whom I spoke, she regards herself as a socially tolerant, limited-government fiscal conservative. (Today Republicans of all age groups strenuously avoid describing themselves as “moderate,” a term that the far right has made radioactive.) Camera-ready and compulsively perky — she has twice appeared on Bill Maher’s ”Real Time” panel as a token conservative — she nonetheless lapses into despondency when talking about her party’s current state of denial. During one of the postelection panels, Anderson heard a journalist talk about his interviews with Romney staff members who had hoped to build a winning coalition of white voters. “That just stunned me,” she told me one afternoon over coffee. “I thought: Did you not see the census? Because there was one! And it had some pretty big news — like that America’s biggest growing population is the Latino community! Surprise, surprise! How have we not grasped that this is going to be really important?”
One afternoon last month, I flew with Anderson to Columbus, Ohio, to watch her conduct two focus groups. The first consisted of 10 single, middle-class women in their 20s; the second, of 10 20-something men who were either jobless or employed but seeking better work. All of them voted for Obama but did not identify themselves as committed Democrats and were sufficiently ambivalent about the president’s performance that Anderson deemed them within reach of the Republicans. Each group sat around a large conference table with the pollster, while I viewed the proceedings from behind a panel of one-way glass.
The all-female focus group began with a sobering assessment of the Obama economy. All of the women spoke gloomily about the prospect of paying off student loans, about what they believed to be Social Security’s likely insolvency and about their children’s schooling. A few of them bitterly opined that the Democrats care little about the working class but lavish the poor with federal aid. “You get more off welfare than you would at a minimum-wage job,” observed one of them. Another added, “And if you have a kid, you’re set up for life!”
About an hour into the session, Anderson walked up to a whiteboard and took out a magic marker. “I’m going to write down a word, and you guys free-associate with whatever comes to mind,” she said. The first word she wrote was “Democrat.”
“Young people,” one woman called out.
“Liberal,” another said. Followed by: “Diverse.” “Bill Clinton.”“Change.”“Open-minded.”“Spending.”“Handouts.”“Green.”“More science-based.”
When Anderson then wrote “Republican,” the outburst was immediate and vehement: “Corporate greed.”“Old.”“Middle-aged white men.” “Rich.” “Religious.” “Conservative.” “Hypocritical.” “Military retirees.” “Narrow-minded.” “Rigid.” “Not progressive.” “Polarizing.” “Stuck in their ways.” “Farmers.”
Anderson concluded the group on a somewhat beseeching note. “Let’s talk about Republicans,” she said. “What if anything could they do to earn your vote?”
A self-identified anti-abortion, “very conservative” 27-year-old Obama voter named Gretchen replied: “Don’t be so right wing! You know, on abortion, they’re so out there. That all-or-nothing type of thing, that’s the way Romney came across. And you know, come up with ways to compromise.”
“What would be the sign to you that the Republican Party is moving in the right direction?” Anderson asked them.
“Maybe actually pass something?” suggested a 28-year-old schoolteacher named Courtney, who also identified herself as conservative.
The session with the young men was equally jarring. None of them expressed great enthusiasm for Obama. But their depiction of Republicans was even more lacerating than the women’s had been. “Racist,” “out of touch” and “hateful” made the list — “and put ‘1950s’ on there too!” one called out.
Showing a reverence for understatement, Anderson said: “A lot of those words you used to describe Republicans are negative. What could they say or do to make you feel more positive about the Republican Party?”
“Be more pro-science,” said a 22-year-old moderate named Jack. “Embrace technology and change.”
“Stick to your strong suit,” advised Nick, a 23-year-old African-American. “Clearly social issues aren’t your strong suit. Stop trying to fight the battle that’s already been fought and trying to bring back a movement. Get over it — you lost.”
Later that evening at a hotel bar, Anderson pored over her notes. She seemed morbidly entranced, like a homicide detective gazing into a pool of freshly spilled blood. In the previous few days, the pollster interviewed Latino voters in San Diego and young entrepreneurs in Orlando. The findings were virtually unanimous. No one could understand the G.O.P.’s hot-blooded opposition to gay marriage or its perceived affinity for invading foreign countries. Every group believed that the first place to cut spending was the defense budget. During the whiteboard drill, every focus group described Democrats as “open-minded” and Republicans as “rigid.”
“There is a brand,” the 28-year-old pollster concluded of her party with clinical finality. “And it’s that we’re not in the 21st century.”
Of course, many conservatives like their brand just the way it is, regardless of what century it seems to belong to. Anderson did not relish a tug of war over the party’s identity between them and more open-minded Republicans. She talked to me about Jon Huntsman, the presidential candidate whose positions on climate change and social issues she admired, and the unseemly spectacle of his denigrating the far right. To prosper, the party should not have to eat its own, she maintained. Still, to hear her focus-group subjects tell it, the voice of today’s G.O.P. is repellent to young voters. Can that voice, belonging to the party’s most fevered members, still be accommodated even as young Republicans seek to bring their party into the modern era?
This conundrum has been a frequent postelection topic as youthful conservative dissidents huddle in taverns and homes and — among friends, in the manner of early-20th-century Bolsheviks — proceed to speak the unspeakable about the ruling elite. I sat in on one such gathering on a Saturday evening in early February — convened at a Russian bar in Midtown Manhattan, over Baltika beers. The group of a half-dozen or so conservative pundits and consultants calls itself Proximus, which is Latin for “next,” and they seem to revel in their internal disagreements. One of them argued, “Not all regulation is bad,” while another countered, “I hate all regulations, every single one of them” — including, he cheerfully admitted, minimum-wage and child-labor laws. Nonetheless, the focal point of Proximus’s mission is not policy formulation but salesmanship: how to bring new voters into the fold while remaining true to conservative principles.
“This is a long-term play,” conceded John Goodwin, a founder of the group and former chief of staff to the outspoken conservative congressman Raúl Labrador. “This isn’t going to happen by 2014. But we want to be able to show voters that we have a diversity of opinion. Right now, Republicans have such a small number of vocal messengers. What we want to do is add more microphones and eventually drown out the others.”
“And we can’t be afraid to call out Rush Limbaugh,” said Goodwin’s fiancée, S. E. Cupp, a New York Daily News columnist and a co-host of”The Cycle”on MSNBC. “If we can get three Republicans on three different networks saying, ‘What Rush Limbaugh said is crazy and stupid and dangerous,’ maybe that’ll give other Republicans cover” to denounce the talk-show host as well.
Cupp, who is 33, defines her brand of conservatism as “rational — and optimistic!” She is staunchly anti-abortion but also pro-gay-marriage and a “warheads on foreheads” hawk whose heroes are Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley Jr. Like many Republicans today — and indeed like liberal Democrats in the 1980s, before Bill Clinton came along and charted a more centrist course — Cupp finds herself in the unenviable position of maintaining that Americans largely side with her party’s worldview, even if their votes suggest otherwise. “Public polling still puts the country center-right on a host of issues,” she told me.
The problem is that her party’s loudest voices sound far more right than center. The voters in Kristen Soltis Anderson’s focus groups condemned Republicans for their unchecked hatred of Obama and for threatening to take away financing for Planned Parenthood, ban abortion, outlaw gay marriage and wage war. From where they stood, at the center-right of S. E. Cupp’s domain, the party had been dragged well out of plain view.
Proximus seeks to marginalize the more strident talking heads by offering itself up to — or if necessary, forcing itself upon — the party as a 21st-century mouthpiece. “If I were training a candidate who’s against gay marriage,” Cupp told me, “I’d say: ‘Don’t change your beliefs, just say legislatively this is not a priority, and I’m not going to take away someone’s right. And if abortion or gay marriage is your No. 1 issue, I’m not your guy.’ ”
I tried to imagine how Cupp’s kinder-gentler message-coaching would go over with the Tea Party, a group that was never mentioned by the young Republicans I spoke with until I broached it. Still, the influence of the far right on the party’s image remains hard to ignore. When I brought up the subject of the Tea Party to Cupp, she said: “People aren’t repelled by the idea of limited government or balancing the budget or lowering taxes. Those Tea Party principles are incredibly popular with the public, even if they don’t know it. Again, that’s a messaging issue, that’s not a principle issue.”
She went on to say, “I don’t think we win by subtraction” — meaning, by casting out the party’s right wing to entice the centrists. Instead, Cupp and her fellow travelers hope to revive Lee Atwater’s bygone “big tent,” under which gay people and Tea Party members and isolationists and neocons would coexist without rancor. But Atwater, the legendary R.N.C. chairman, did not have to worry about freelance voices like Limbaugh and Todd Akin offending whole swaths of emerging demographic groups. Nor during the Atwater era, when Ronald Reagan was president, did the party’s most extreme wing intimidate other Republicans into legislating like extremists themselves, thereby further tarnishing the party’s image. When I mentioned this to the Proximus gathering, Goodwin explained the dilemma faced by Republicans in Congress. “What forces them to vote that way, 9 times out of 10, is a fear of a primary challenge,” he said. “What we hope to accomplish is to bring more voters into Republican primaries, so that it isn’t just the far right that shows up at the polls.”
The dilemma, Goodwin acknowledged, is that the far-right rhetoric may well repel such voters from participating in G.O.P. primaries to begin with. “We recognize that this isn’t something that’s going to happen anytime soon,” he said.
On Nov. 30, more than 2,000 progressives shuffled into the Washington Convention Center to participate in RootsCamp, an annual series of seminars hosted by the New Organizing Institute, where the most cutting-edge digital and grass-roots organizing techniques are discussed. The shaggy and the achingly earnest are well represented at RootsCamp, which makes it an easy target of derision from the right. A reporter from the conservative publication The Daily Caller attended the postelection gathering in 2010 and made great sport of the “unconference,” with its self-conscious inclusiveness, which the reporter termed “multilingual, multicultural and multi-unpurposeful.”
But the handful of conservatives who attended the conference this past November were in no mood to sneer. One was Patrick Ruffini, a 34-year-old leader of the G.O.P.’s young-and-restless digerati. At RootsCamp, his breathless tweets of the sessions held by top Obama organizers — “In eight years, calling people will be obsolete”; “Digital organizing director and field director will be one and the same” — set off a buzz among Republican techies. Ruffini was plainly impressed by the openness of the experience. “I’m like, Wow, they’re doing this in front of 2,000 people, and the system seems to actually work,” he told me a month later. “The thing I was struck by at RootsCamp was that in many ways, the Democratic technology ecosystem has embraced the free market — whereas the Republican one sort of runs on socialism, with the R.N.C. being the overlord.”
The success of the RootsCamp, and its smaller and more intensive offshoot gathering, the New Media Boot Camp, helps explain the yawning digital divide between the two parties. In 2006, a few holdovers from the Howard Dean and John Kerry campaigns eschewed lucrative offers from Washington consulting firms in order to devote some of their time to the communal information-sharing ideals of the New Organizing Institute. Since then, numerous Boot Camp alumni have gone on to help run the tech operations of the Obama campaign and throughout the Democratic Party infrastructure, while RootsCamp has served as a crash course in best practices for thousands of lefties.
Young Republicans now lament that no one from their side has stepped up to organize a conservative version of RootsCamp. Michael Turk, a 42-year-old Republican digital guru, suggested that the failure of G.O.P. technologists to do this springs from a uniquely Republican trait. “They all wanted to make money,” he said. “And so as a result, Katie Harbath, who was one of my deputies at the R.N.C., is now at Facebook, and Mindy Finn” — a longtime G.O.P. digital operative — “is at Twitter, and Patrick and I each started our own companies. We all found ways to parlay that into a living for our families, as opposed to just doing it for the cause.”
Several G.O.P. digital specialists told me that, in addition, they found it difficult to recruit talent because of the values espoused by the party. “I know a lot of people who do technology for a living,” Turk said. “And almost universally, there’s a libertarian streak that runs through them — information should be free, do your own thing and leave me alone, that sort of mind-set. That’s very much what the Internet is. And almost to a person that I’ve talked to, they say, ‘Yeah, I would probably vote for Republicans, but I can’t get past the gay-marriage ban, the abortion stance, all of these social causes.’ Almost universally, they see a future where you have more options, not less. So questions about whether you can be married to the person you want to be married to just flies in the face of the future. They don’t want to be part of an organization that puts them squarely on the wrong side of history.”
Many young conservatives also said that technological innovation runs at cross-purposes with the party’s corporate rigidity. “There’s a feeling that Republican politics are more hierarchical than in the Democratic Party,” Ben Domenech, a 31-year-old blogger and research fellow at the libertarian Heartland Institute, told me. “There are always elders at the top who say, ‘That’s not important.’ And that’s where the left has beaten us, by giving smart people the space and trusting them to have success. It’s a fundamentally anti-entrepreneurial model we’ve embraced.”
Erik Telford explained it this way: “I think there’s a very incestuous community of consultants who profit off certain tactics, and that creates bias and inhibits innovation.” Telford was suggesting that many of the party leaders, like Karl Rove and his American Crossroads super PAC, saw no financial advantage to bringing in avant-garde digital specialists, the types who were embraced by the Obama operation. For that matter, Zac Moffatt and his firm, Targeted Victory, enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the G.O.P.’s digital business during the lackluster 2012 cycle, which has made Moffatt an irresistible symbol for all that’s clubby and backward-thinking about the party. As Bret Jacobson said, half-jokingly, “If you have one firm that’s doing the top candidate, plus the R.N.C., plus the top outside group — the Department of Justice, in any other industry, would be actively asking questions.”
One of several G.O.P. digital whizzes who went unused by Moffatt’s shop in 2012 was Vincent Harris, a savvy 24-year-old social-media consultant whose efforts in Texas helped catapult Ted Cruz to an upset victory over a better-known candidate in the U.S. Senate primary. Harris told me he saw the Romney campaign as “a very insular, closed operation,” symptomatic of a partywide affliction. “There’s an old guard in Republican politics, and that old guard is mostly made up of television and direct-mail consultants,” he said. “And you can say that’s generational — but at the same time, David Axelrod has to be the same age as Karl Rove, right? The old guard in the Democratic Party made the adjustment with the Obama digital operation. There hasn’t been a concerted effort among the established G.O.P. folks to figure this stuff out.”
Harris suffers no illusions that the Roves of his party will turn over the keys to young techies like him. “We’re the second rung,” he told me. “The first tier isn’t going away for another 20 years.”
It is Harris’s last point — that the G.O.P. is stuck with its current leadership for the next decade or more — that incites particular angst in young Republicans. With palpable envy, they describe the forward-leaning impulses of the Obama campaign: Axelrod’s tweeting endlessly; the deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter’s becoming a YouTube dynamo with her sassy Web rebuttals to the Romney campaign; Jim Messina’s traveling westward to receive wisdom from Eric Schmidt, Steve Jobs and Steven Spielberg. (From Spielberg, about not trying to replicate their 2008 campaign: “You can only be the Rolling Stones from 1965 once. And then you’re a touring band that has to sell tickets each time you come to town.”) One leading G.O.P. digital operative told me: “We’re looking for someone who comes to us and is like: ‘All right, what do we need to do? I’m going to trust you to do it, I’m going to give you a real budget, you’ll have a seat at the table and will be just as important as the communications guy and the field guy. And you know what, those other guys need to be more modern, too, and that’s the campaign we’re going to run. So let’s start plotting out how we’re going to do that.’ ”
Echoing the opinion of nearly every other young Republican with whom I spoke, the operative concluded sadly, “And we haven’t had that person yet.”
The person they are seeking is the Republican incarnation of David Plouffe — the seemingly unremarkable Hill staffer and itinerant consultant who, like the Howard Dean strategist Joe Trippi before him, recognized that the only way his relatively unknown and underfinanced candidate could prevail over the front-runner would be to muster a guerrilla operation. To accomplish this, in 2007, Plouffe met with a 25-year-old former Dean techie named Joe Rospars and promptly enlisted him to help marshal candidate Obama’s volunteer support through high-tech means. Plouffe, Rospars told me, became the champion of “using digital to build the campaign from the bottom up.” Employing then-nascent social media channels like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, Rospars’s team raised enormous sums of money online while also plugging a nationwide grass-roots network into Obama’s get-out-the-vote efforts. Four years later, Stephanie Cutter said, “Plouffe was a big proponent” of completely reimagining the 2008 effort.
A few days before this year’s inauguration — after which he would take leave of the Obama White House and of politics as a profession — Plouffe met with me in his small and uncluttered West Wing office. He wore a blue shirt and a purple tie and, with his work now done, was uncharacteristically expansive. He told me he was surprised by the Romney campaign’s strategic shortcomings. After naming one particular member of Romney’s high command, he said, “We had 15 people more qualified to do that job than him.”
Plouffe cut his teeth as the deputy chief of staff of Representative Dick Gephardt, whose impressive farm team also included those who would go on to be White House advisers, like Paul Begala, George Stephanopoulos and Bill Burton. Now it was the Obama operation that, he said, “is going to generate a lot of people who are going to run presidential and Senate campaigns.” They were apt pupils of a campaign that was “a perfect-storm marriage between grass-roots energy and digital technology.” He continued: “Not having that is like Nixon not shaving before his first debate — you’ve got to understand the world you’re competing in. Our thinking always was, We don’t want people when they interact with the Obama campaign to have it be a deficient experience compared to how they shop or how they get their news. People don’t say, ‘Well, you’re a political campaign, so I expect you to be slower and less interesting.’ Right? We wanted it to be like Amazon. And I still don’t think the Republicans are there.”
But, I asked Plouffe, wasn’t the G.O.P. just one postmodern presidential candidate — say, a Senator Marco Rubio — away from getting back into the game?
Pouncing, he replied: “Let me tell you something. The Hispanic voters in Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico don’t give a damn about Marco Rubio, the Tea Party Cuban-American from Florida. You know what? We won the Cuban vote! And it’s because younger Cubans are behaving differently than their parents. It’s probably my favorite stat of the whole campaign. So this notion that Marco Rubio is going to heal their problems — it’s not even sophomoric; it’s juvenile! And by the way: the bigger problem they’ve got with Latinos isn’t immigration. It’s their economic policies and health care. The group that supported the president’s health care bill the most? Latinos.”
Plouffe readily conceded that he and his generation held no iron grip on political wisdom, but then he flashed a grin when I brought up the R.N.C.’s Growth and Opportunity Project, composed of party stalwarts. “If there’s a review board the Democrats put together in 2032, or even 2020, and I’m on it,” he said, “we’re screwed.”
The Republicans did in fact recently have a David Plouffe of their own. As one G.O.P. techie elegantly put it, “We were the smart ones, back in ’04, eons ago.” Referring to the campaign that re-elected George W. Bush, Plouffe told me: “You know how in fantasy baseball you imagine putting up your team against the 1927 Yankees? We would’ve liked to have faced off against the 2004 Republicans. Beating the Clintons” — during the 2008 primaries — “that was, in terms of scale of difficulty, significantly above beating Romney. But going up against the Bushies — that would’ve been something we all would’ve relished.”
Plouffe wasn’t referring to competing against Bush’s oft-described architect, Karl Rove — but rather, against the campaign manager, Ken Mehlman. “Mehlman got technology and organization and the truth is — I think it’s completely misunderstood — it was Ken’s campaign,” Plouffe said. He added that he and Mehlman were friends, and that during the 2012 cycle, Mehlman — who had been informally advising the Romney campaign — was also “very free with advice about structure, how they dealt with an incumbent president, how they dealt with debate prep.” (Similarly, the former Bush senior strategist Matthew Dowd told me that Axelrod reached out to him for advice and they sat down together. “Which never happened with me and Romney-world.”)
Mehlman, according to Bush campaign officials, persuaded Rove to invest heavily in microtargeting (a data-driven means of identifying and reaching select groups of voters), which helped deliver Ohio and thus the election. He advocated reaching out to minority voters both as Bush’s campaign manager and later as chairman of the R.N.C., where he also instructed his staff to read “Moneyball.” “I was like, ‘What does a baseball book have to do with politics?’ ” said Michael Turk, who worked for Mehlman at the R.N.C. “Once I actually took the time to digest it, I realized what he was trying to do — which was exactly the kind of thing that the Obama team just did: understanding that not every election is about home runs but instead getting a whole bunch of singles together that eventually add up to a win.”
I met with Mehlman one morning in his office near the Capitol. He left politics in 2007 and subsequently came out as gay — and after that, became a vigorous if behind-the-scenes supporter of legalizing same-sex marriage in New York and beyond. Mehlman is now a partner at the private-equity giant Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, wealthy and free from his party’s fetters. He was nonetheless hesitant to criticize his fellow Republicans, though implicitly his comments were damning.
“There’s an important book by Ben Wattenberg and Richard Scammon called ‘The Real Majority,’ published in 1970,” Mehlman said as he leaned back in his chair. “The book explains in part how the Republican Party would go on to win five out of six presidential elections through the eyes of the ‘typical’ voter — a working-class couple in Dayton, Ohio. They’re white, worried about crime, feel burdened by taxes and feel like too many Democrats don’t understand these concerns.”
Today’s typical voter, he went on to say, could be that same white couple in Dayton. “But here’s the difference,” he said. ‘They worry about economic mobility — can their kids get ahead or even keep up. Their next-door neighbors are Latino whose mom gets concerned when she hears talk about self-deportation or no driver’s licenses. And that couple has a gay niece and an African-American brother-in-law. And too many folks like the couple in Dayton today wonder if some of the G.O.P. understands their lives anymore.”
I asked him whether, as even some Republicans have suggested, Ronald Reagan would have trouble building a winning coalition today. “I think he could win, partly because Reagan wouldn’t be the Reagan he was in 1980,” Mehlman replied. “Reagan had an unbelievable intuitive understanding of the electorate, because he’d spent his life as the president of a large union, as an actor who understands his audience, as the governor of the largest state, as a corporate spokesman who traveled — Reagan spent his life listening to people and learning from them and adapting to their concerns. That’s why there were Reagan Democrats — ethnics, working-class voters, Southern voters. So I think a modern Reagan would understand the demography and where the new voters are and would’ve applied his principles accordingly.”
But could a modern-day Reagan, even with Ken Mehlman running his campaign, overcome the party’s angry and antiquated image? To win, a reincarnated Reagan — or a Rubio or a Chris Christie or a Bobby Jindal — would still have to satisfy his base of hard-line conservatives and captivate a new generation of voters at the same time. I ran this quandary by Kristen Soltis Anderson. “It’s a big challenge,” she acknowledged. “But I think that if you can earn the trust of the people, there are ways you can say, ‘Here’s why I take this position.’ I don’t know that someone like Rubio, who may be young and attractive and well spoken, could attract young voters despite his views on gay marriage. I do think that in the absence of a very compelling reason to vote for a candidate, those social issues can be deal-breakers for young voters. The challenge is: Can you make a case that’s so compelling that you can overcome those deal-breaker issues? And I don’t know the answer to that question.”
Bret Jacobson, the Red Edge entrepreneur, insisted that the solution was ultimately a simple one. “I think the answer for a vibrant Republican Party is to make our North Star empowering every individual in this country to follow their own dream, free of legislative excesses,” he told me. “There are millions of Americans who take seriously their religious culture as well as traditions that have been handed down for centuries. And the party has to empower them to fight those battles in the social sphere, not in the government sphere. That’s harder work than taking control of the country for four years. But it’s the appropriate battle.”
But, I asked him, don’t social conservatives feel a moral obligation to legislate their beliefs? Did Jacobson really expect the Rick Santorums of his party to let a new generation of Republican leaders tell them what to accept and how to behave?
Jacobson did not back down. “Even the Republican Party rejected Santorum,” he said. “He got some attention, and he certainly received votes. But he didn’t win.”
In a sense, however, Santorum and his fellow archconservatives did win, by tugging Mitt Romney and his pliable views rightward. Then Romney lost, and so did the Republicans.
Two days after Obama’s inauguration, Bret Jacobson flew to Charlotte to attend the R.N.C.’s winter conference and sit on a panel devoted to discussing new digital techniques. “Bret’s presentation was one of the best-received of the panel, by far,” the seminar’s organizer, Ryan Cassin, told me. Still, Jacobson was disappointed to see only 30 people in attendance. President Obama, meanwhile, announced the previous week that his campaign juggernaut would be transformed into an advocacy group, Organizing for Action, that would use the vast social network amassed during the 2012 cycle to advance the administration’s policy goals. The Republican panel amounted to a first step — a baby step — while the competition was lapping them.
Jacobson did not stick around the next day to hear Reince Priebus declare to the conferees, “We’re the party of innovation!” Instead, he left his own panel early to catch a plane back to Washington. Calls were continuing to come into Red Edge’s office from establishment Republicans inquiring about Jacobson and Spencer’s cautionary slide presentation.
Jacobson wanted to interpret this interest as a good thing. But I could tell from his voice that the experience at the R.N.C. conference deflated his hopes about Republicans being well on the road to enlightenment. “My primary worry,” he told me without his characteristic levity, “is that I’m going to become the Al Gore of the right” — meaning, a forecaster of doom, appreciated and unheeded as the clever if somewhat lonely guy who told them so.