Just over six years ago, Republicans controlled the U.S. House, the Senate and the White House. Some in Washington still spoke of a conservative “permanent majority” taking shape—a coalition that would guarantee the GOP control of the federal government for the foreseeable future.
In 2013, things look very different: the party has lost its second presidential election in a row (and the popular vote in five of the last six), lost seats in the Senate and has seen its majority in the House whittled down. For what it’s worth, the GOP actually lost the popular vote for the House this past cycle.
Long-term prospects are equally grim with the demographic groups composing the Democrats’ new base projected to increase their share of the vote with every election over the next few decades. Whither the Grand Old Party? Do they need new messengers—perhaps younger and more ethnically diverse? New policies? Maybe the courage to follow the old ones to their logical ends? What about the Internet? This being Tech Bytes, let’s focus on the last.
In the previous issue, we looked at one effort to convince Republican politicos to embrace new technologies, Patrick Ruffini’s “Inside the Cave” analysis of Obama’s ground game and digital team. For another, see the recent New York Times Magazine article on the current Republican travails, which featured Bret Jacobson and Ian Spencer of Red Edge who are trying to show the party just how deep a hole it’s in and what it might do to get out.
One set of tools often mentioned by Republicans looking for a fresh start— social media. It gets touted as a key part of the party’s future—at times, verging on a magic bullet. But will a dash of social really make a significant difference? It may, but I’d argue that its success depends on what else the GOP does to reinvent itself.
Here’s the thing with social media—it’s social. Twitter and Facebook work for your candidate or cause when you can persuade a lot of people (and the right people) to get excited about it. It’s a classic recipe for political activism: get people fired up about your issues and your candidates and then give them something to do with it. Spreading your messages (and organizing the neighbors) is something that online social channels can let people do very well, assuming you have enough folks doing the spreading and the organizing.
But therein lies the rub: your supporters have to be excited to get active online, but you also need enough of them to really matter. The demographic challenge for Republicans revolves around the fact that their base of older, white voters is destined to shrink as a part of the electorate, even as the Republican brand has powerfully negative connotations among the young. Online tools can amplify the voices of a loud few, as both Ron Paul supporters and the Occupy movement found. But for a genuinely popular movement to arise, you need ideas and candidates that generate enthusiasm, along with a large enough group of people who are open to joining in.
My suspicion is that the old rules of politics still apply: winning is all about having the right message from the right messenger at the right moment. Younger and more diverse voices? Republicans are cultivating them. A good time to pounce? That will come along eventually, for sure.
Democrats will inevitably screw up, and the cultural patterns our politics is embedded in will also eventually shift. But the right message? That’ll take some real soul searching among Republicans. In the short term, it also likely means a nasty battle over what the party stands for.
Social media will be a part of any Republican resurgence in the near future—the tools are simply too politically useful to ignore. And with the right message and the right messenger, Republicans could set social media alight if they find the proper moment. Absent any of those three factors, though, Republicans will simply be rolling a rock up a hill, again and again.
What About Data?
“Big data” is another tool I’ve heard tossed around as a potential savior for the Republican Party’s current political woes. After all, as we saw in the last Tech Bytes edition, Obama 2012 used data throughout its operations—targeting TV ads and grassroots outreach, for instance. They even used data at the local level. A volunteer’s record of participation in campaign events helped to identify potential field team leaders.
Republicans are certainly no strangers to political data. Their 2004 microtargeting turnout operation is still lauded by political professionals as both innovative and successful. But as with social media, using data to find persuadable voters depends on the existence of a sizable pool of persuadable voters. Data can help campaigns identify the people who may be open to supporting them, but data won’t create that pool of potential supporters. The people actually need to be there in the first place for data mining techniques to pinpoint them, making data no more of a panacea than social media.
Republicans will no doubt survive their time in the wilderness. Both parties have been sent packing at the presidential level before and emerged more powerful years down the road.
And Democrats will surely present them plenty of opportunities to exploit, whether through policy choices, scandal, demographic changes or pure bad luck. But while technology may assist a Republican revival, it can’t create one. That will require the combination of message, messenger and moment, just as it always has.
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning Epolitics.com, and a 15-year veteran of online politics. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at firstname.lastname@example.org