[5440 note: this is an adaptation of a presentation given by the author at the TechRoanoke Conference in Bellevue, WA, June 2014]
There is a battle on for the soul of the GOP. But to clarify, I’m NOT going to be talking about the 800lb gorilla in the room. The factional infighting, the purity tests and the pointless blood feuds can wait for another time. What I want to talk about today is the battle to drag the GOP into the 21st century to become truly competitive with the modern campaign strategies of the Left. We like to think that we’re the smartest people in any room we’re in, and we are convinced of the rightness and righteousness of the facts behind conservative philosophy. And yet,it seems at times that we can’t even be convinced by continued failures that we are engaged in the insanity of trying the same tactics over and over and expecting different results. Several weeks ago, I heard a speech on what the Wehby campaign needs to be doing to reach the proper audience to win the election against Jeff Merkley in Oregon’s race for US Senate.
The speaker reminded us of the post mortems after the 2012 election – specifically the 100 page report by Patrick Ruffini, Inside the Cave. It made me think about the current state of the Right’s campaign strategy, and the sad conclusion I came to is that we have made very little progress since 2012, despite knowing what we need to do to improve. Oh, there have been some overtures towards making our data more reliable and creating better walk lists. But we still do not have a comprehensive strategy to properly use these tools, and we don’t have nearly the amount of tools that are available to the Left.
This is about the digital divide between Conservatives and Liberals – how the left is beating the right’s brains in with social media, new media and big data. And I want to talk about the solutions to our problems with connecting with voters – not simply lecturing them, but persuading them. The Right needs to be better at investing in digital infrastructure, telling stories and getting folks to trust us, one voter at a time. Today we’ll examine:
- The differences in digital effectiveness between the Right and the Left, and opportunities for growth on the Right
- How to tell our stories in a way that is convincing and trustworthy
- Getting out of the echo chamber
- The cultural shift this will require in the Republican Party
As political activists who seek out better tools to accomplish our goals, we should always strive to win hearts and minds of voters and educate them – it’s the art of persuasion. And we should realize that we constantly need to do this each election cycle. We are the leaders, the activists, the folks who jumped into the deep end of the pool. We need to get to all those other folks in the shallow end, who barely know how to swim, and get them to trust our message. It’s a daunting task. I’m talking today about the tools we need, but we should remain ever mindful of the reasons WHY we’re using these tools. The technology is not the end – it’s a means to an end. So the deficit faced on the Right is a double edged sword – the Left invests more in the tools, but they are also innately better at getting folks to trust them.
When I asked for a show of hands of how many folks had read Inside The Cave, I saw 3 hands out of 40+ attendees. Not knowing how we got beat is a good recipe for getting beaten again. According to the report, in 2012, on average, Fortune 100 companies used 25% of their advertising budgets on digital – Facebook, Google ads, etc. You’d think the political world – which Andrew Breitbart reminded us was downstream from culture – would embrace this new untapped market. You’d be wrong.
Democrats averaged 8% of their advertising budgets in the digital sphere in 2012. But that was more than TWICE what was spent by Republicans. In 2012, GOP campaigns averaged a paltry 3% of their ad budgets on digital.
Meanwhile, Obama for America spent 21% of their ad budget on digital – comparable to the rate of the most successful corporations in America. Remember, Democrats as a whole spent 8% of their advertising budgets on digital, and Republican campaigns only spent 3%.The word is that for 2014, Democrats hope to increase that to 15% of their budget across the board. Maybe I’ve missed it, but I have yet to see any solid goal from Republicans.
In 2012, 1/3 of all Americans used social media to learn about the 2012 Presidential election, according to a report by Voter Gravity. According to the same report, over 50% of Americans under 30 learned about the Presidential election from social media – and the proportion was higher for Republicans under 30 than Democrats.
All these numbers are trending upward, as we all can attest anecdotally. It is folly to think Republican candidates can write off these tools and expect to win the old fashioned way. Campaigns MUST embrace the digital realm and MUST be willing to invest in it.
So when we use these new media tools, what are we telling folks, and how are we reaching people to change their minds? As just one example, we all hate liberal media bias, but how do we fight back against bias and get a positive story into the news cycle? First, we should be ready to use every opportunity in blogs and social media to Slay False Pretenses. The Left is good at setting up strawman arguments. Take a page from Newt – whether you love Gingrich or hate him, you have to admire the way he reframes stupid questions from the media!
What story do you think isn’t being told in the mainstream media? Who’s going to tell it? We all can do so, whether it’s as a campaign strategist, blogger or simply a user of social media. That’s the power and the necessity of new media. Consumers are more willing to seek out the news they want than in the days of the alphabet news broadcasts. BUT consumers must learn to trust you. This will involve getting your message outside the echo chamber. I can’t stress this enough – we can’t just turn the outrage meter to ELEVEN and scream at each other.
Too often in blogs and social media, on both sides of the aisle, we only post click-bait that will tap into the outrage of the base voters. Traffic is very important in blogging, but so is reaching a wider audience than those you’ve already convinced. It’s about educating voters, and winning hearts and minds. We have experienced a cultural shift as a nation, and we need to fight to shift it back. We can no longer satisfy ourselves with ramping up the campaign machine 3 months before election day. We must make this a constant effort, because the erosion of our society and the slow drip of liberal indoctrination is ever ongoing. It’s not just about winning elections, it’s about a voting populace that willfully agrees with more and more layers of government.
So how do we do this? Andrew Breitbart said “Politics is downstream from culture.” Don’t eschew pop culture – embrace it and use it! According to Inside The Cave, that’s exactly what the Obama campaign did. They spent MONTHS developing relationships with people in ways unrelated to politics, then acted as navigators for low info voters who needed help sifting through the tsunami of negative ads. As just merely one example, Andrew Breitbart was just as famous for his late night Twitter music selections as he was for the Anthony Weiner incident. Be accessible, be trustable, be likeable! How many of our candidates forget these simple rules?
Another underutilized tool is the relationship between new media and old media. Newspapers are dying. The Seattle Post Intelligencer no longer delivers, and the Oregonian only delivers 3 days a week. It is tempting to say that this is the inexorable way of the future and that we should cheer the death of the monolithic, liberal, old media. This is a mistake, in my view. Some TV stations, like KATU and its coverage of the Cover Oregon scandals, are rediscovering their investigative journalism units. Radio also affords us ample opportunity to amplify our message. Despite the changing landscape in legacy media, we can’t afford not to make use of this megaphone to spread our message.
Too often our candidates and activists fear and avoid the media. They constantly seek out the clever sound bite that connects without offending the Portland voting base. As Republicans in Oregon, we are not afforded the luxury of winning by running not to lose. Don’t be afraid – learn to use it. Know that they will look for every opportunity to distort and misquote. No press is bad press, as long as you face it all head up and don’t avoid the issues. Also know that with reduced local reporting budgets, any assistance they get is appreciated. Finally, the legacy media make a great foil for a blogger to point out how the story should have been written. Pressure exerted in social media and blogs has been shown to embarrass legacy media outlets into properly reporting the news.
So, the takeaways: invest in new modes of communication; constantly engage every opportunity to spread your message; become a trusted source of information; tell compelling stories that change hearts and minds; and get out of the echo chamber.
But let’s be honest here. None of this will be accomplished until there’s a culture shift within the Republican movement. Some of this intransigence is generational, but some of it is also philosophical. I said I wouldn’t address the 800 lb gorilla, but I’ll poke it a little bit here – too often it seems that new strategies are associated with those upstart tea partiers who are intent on ruining what the old guard has going on. For me at least, this has far less to do with ideology and far more to do with effectiveness, thinking outside the box, and adopting new ideas that are unknown and frightening. But failing to embrace new strategies is the pathway to permanent societal irrelevance.
It comes down to this – if we really want to create a sustainable, stable winning formula, we MUST invest in arming our activists – year round, not just 3 months before election day – with the best messaging, the best strategy and the best tools available.