Like many Republican operatives this cycle, Michael Turk has found himself unable to get behind the party’s nominee. For Turk, the GOP’s current standard bearer isn’t just dangerous for Republicans in 2016, he’s “a long term liability for the party.”
Turk, one of the Republican Party’s original digital strategists and founder of Opinion Mover Strategies, views the Trump campaign as “arguably the least beneficial [campaign] from a party infrastructure standpoint we’ve ever had on the Republican side.”
Enter Gary Johnson, the former New Mexico governor and the Libertarian Party’s nominee for president. Turk, now the digital co-chair of Republicans for Johnson, is among a group of high profile GOP strategists working to help further Johnson’s bid. The group includes Cyrus Krohn, Liz Mair, Jon Henke and Marco Nunez.
After two cycles of Democrats besting their Republican counterparts on the presidential level, Trump at the top of the ticket could very well translate to a lost cycle when it comes to digital campaigning and organizing—something likely to have real consequences further down the ballot.
In a presidential cycle, a national campaign typically spends “a ridiculous amount of money building new technologies [and] experimenting with new technologies,” noted Turk. After Election Day, the national committees, and eventually state parties and state party committees, see the benefit of that progress.
Not so in 2016. And with a Trump victory, the concern is that the party’s ability to build for the future takes an even greater hit.
C&E sat down with Turk, a veteran of three Republican presidential campaigns, to talk Trump, Gary Johnson and the state of digital politics.
And a few parts of our conversation with Michael Turk that didn’t make the above video:
C&E: How do you assess where both parties are with their ability to leverage data and analytics to get their candidates elected right now?
Turk: Think back to after the 2012 election when the RNC was going through its autopsy phase and having this discussion about where they were with regard to data. Romney advisor Stuart Stevens had made a point that a lot of people mocked where he said data and analytics is something you can throw money at. That’s a money problem. I think that the RNC has thrown money at it and as a result they’re in a place where the RNC’s data operation is probably quite good. I don’t think data has ever been the RNC’s problem. They’ve had good data going back to the early 90s when they first centralized their national voter database and began looking at things that way. I don’t think data is even the issue with the Trump campaign. The issue is translating the data into grassroots mobilization and that’s where a lot of the RNC’s problem this year will be.
The Trump campaign doesn’t have a field organization. The state parties are somewhat reliant on the RNC, and many state parties aren’t that well organized. Many of them rely on the presidential campaign to have an actual field team that they can put together. That’s why our effort is focused so much on making sure we have people in every state that we can actually organize.
C&E: Is the fundamental nature of a party committee part of the issue? There has been so much staff turnover on the digital side.
Turk: I think that’s going to be true wherever you are. If you’re at a startup without high salaries and you’re putting in lots of hours, other opportunities will come up once you develop any kind of a name for yourself. So the question then becomes are you more concerned with the cause of the startup, in this case the cause of the party, or are you more concerned with continuing to grow? I think the Democrats, just by nature, have more of a collective mindset. We did some interesting studies on where people spent their time online when I was at the RNC. It’s clear that Republicans seem to look at it as a tool to get things done. Democrats look at it as a tool to connect. And when you look at how the two parties operate with regard to their field organization you see that.
C&E: How did the Sanders campaign achieve what it did in your estimation?
Turk: I think the Bernie success speaks to exactly the challenge Gary Johnson will have. Bernie resonated because people looked at Hillary and the ones that responded to Bernie were mostly the really progressive wing of the Democratic Party. They felt the other candidate didn’t represent their core values at all. When looking at Hillary versus someone who was their champion, even if he was the imperfect champion that Bernie was, he’s a guy who has followed those core beliefs his whole life. You may not like where his ideology is, but you know that he’s going to be consistent. As a result, I think he was just the masthead on the front of the ship.
I think the problem you have on the Republican side is that in a weird way, Trump is that. He actually gathers together some of that core base of the GOP that has responded to everything from the Southern strategy to the attacks on same-sex marriage. He plays to the veiled racism. He plays to the veiled discrimination and prejudice; the concept of the other in some way. And unfortunately, that is a significant part of the GOP base right now. I’m hoping the part of the GOP base that is ideologically consistent will realize that the ideological choice is Gary Johnson. He may not be with you for some things, but ideologically if you want smaller government, if you want responsible government, if you want government that actually tries to solve problems, Gary’s the one to go with. The question is whether there’s that social spark that brings this together. And that’s part of what we’re hoping to provide.
C&E: What larger trends do you see in digital cycle?
Turk: I think a lot of the same tools are in play. You’ll see some of them that will have moments. Mobile I think is just generally a digital trend that continues to accelerate. One of the things I pay a lot of attention to isn’t campaign related, but it’s this balance between privacy and security; privacy and surveillance. I think that in anything you do it’s probably going to be the premiere topic of discussion in digital for the next 20 years. As that relates to campaigns, we have these huge databases and we know a lot about voters. We know more about voters than they would like to know. If most people that followed politics understood how profiled they are and how much of their personal computer browsing and behavior we know, it would make them skittish. There will come a time when that becomes a problem.