An autopsy of the autopsy: Why the RNC reboot will fail

The Republican National Committee released it’s Growth and Opportunity Project, also known as its 2012 election “autopsy,” yesterday.

After conducting an exhaustive series of focus groups, online surveys and conference calls, resulting in over 52,000 contacts with voters, the GOP found out what the rest of us already knew: Republicans need to move into the 21st Century in terms of policy, rhetoric and identity. TalkingPointsMemo has a great breakdown of major takeaways here.

Given my background in ground-level field work, I found myself particularly interested in the Republicans’ take on their woefully incompetent campaign infrastructure. In terms of data, targeting, analytics, social media and, most glaringly, old-fashioned, grind-it-out voter contact, the Obama operations of 2008 and 2012 shellacked their Republican counterparts.

Autopsy via Shutterstock

Autopsy via Shutterstock

But while the RNC recognizes that it needs to take a page out of the Obama playbook, the report makes clear that the GOP is not a party of organizers. The report shows a lack of understanding of a few basic principles of field campaigns, indicating that Democratic campaigns may enjoy a ground-game advantage for elections to come:

1. Organize, don’t “outreach”

One of the biggest bombshells RNC chairman Reince Priebus dropped in the unveiling of this report was a $10 million minority outreach program, which would pay staffers to embed themselves in minority communities and talk up the GOP brand. As Priebus said, the GOP has “become a party that parachutes into communities four months before an election.” As I observed firsthand, and as the Onion satirized during the last election cycle, it currently doesn’t even do that.

While it’s obviously better than nothing, this program is not structured for success. Until the Republican Party realizes that its problem is not “parachuting in” too late, rather the fact that they are parachuting in the first place, “outreach” efforts will be a waste of money.

The very word, “outreach,” is an admission that the Republican Party views minority voters as outsiders, people who need to be reached “out” to. Democratic activists have (or should have) learned by now that this form of voter contact smacks of White Savior Complex, and is never taken seriously by the communities they seek to engage.

Priebus referred to the continuing presence of Democratic staffers after the 2008 and 2012 elections, Organizing for America and Organizing for Action, respectively, as a model of a successful and analogous program.  But until the RNC recognizes that real organizing is different than token outreach, that it is based on empowering a community rather than “educating” it, as the RNC report mentions frequently, it will be throwing money at a problem it does not know how to fix.

2. “Data” and “targeting” need to be more than trendy words

As Nate Silver pointed out, Republicans face a demographic disadvantage in the information technology industry due to the fact that its best talent tends to be young and liberal – i.e., the computer whizzes that Republicans were bullying back in high school. The RNC’s report devotes a lot of space to talking about improving its data and targeting operations, calling for a new “data analytics institute,” but it is unclear how they will get from point A to point B if people who like math don’t want to work for them.

Moreover, the best model in the business is useless without a steady stream of data coming in. Even if the GOP can begin to close the gap in targeting and modeling, it will need to make a large investment in ground-level voter contact in order to generate a significant body of data. This brings me to my next two points.

3. Measure conversations, not attempts

The first paragraph in the report’s section on voter contact includes the following passage:

Despite the GOP expanding voter contact significantly over the previous election cycles (more than 2.5 times more volunteer voter contacts – 65 million – occurred in 2012 than in 2004 and 2008 combined), we did not see the conversion rates necessary to turn contacts into votes at a level that could have driven the outcome of the election.

65 million voter contacts is a gaudy statistic. It’s also a fantasy, as the RNC is measuring phone numbers dialed and doors knocked on instead of actual conversations resulting from those dials and knocks.

As Americans use their home phone less and caller ID more, phone contact rates have dropped dramatically. Moreover, voters are less likely than ever to pay attention to campaign literature or voicemails. Campaigns have responded by increasingly using telemarketing-style automated dialers, which dial a ton of phone numbers at once and filter out the wrong numbers and answering machines. This connects volunteers with the few people who actually do pick up the phone, allowing them to talk to more voters.

However, in an attempt to make themselves feel better about their ground game, the RNC has continued to count every attempt, included failed ones, as a contact, when in reality only five to ten percent of their attempts actually result in a conversation with a voter. When attempts are emphasized over contacts, field work gets sloppy and success becomes difficult to measure. In short, there is no “A for effort” in voter contact; the fact that you dialed a number doesn’t mean you did anything to win a vote.

If the RNC continues to scratch its head over why, nearly 65 million empty dials later, their ground game was as ineffective in 2012 as it was in 2008, they will never be able to build a field operation that can compete with their Democratic counterparts.

4. Acknowledge who your voters and activists are

While the report emphasized the Republicans’ need to catch up to the Democratic Party in terms of their ground-level efforts, it fails to acknowledge that Republican voters and activists themselves make it difficult to execute an effective field operation.

Why? Because Republicans are older and more spread out than Democrats, making it harder to get them to knock on each others’ doors.

The most heavily Democratic areas, along with the areas with the highest number of low-turnout voters, are in densely-populated cities. This means that Democrats’ highest-priority voters are also the easiest ones to reach face-to-face, which is over twice as effective as reaching them over the phone. It is also easier to organize groups of activists into local volunteer teams which hold regular events; after all, they live right down the street from one another.

Conversely, the highest priority voters for a Republican campaign are more likely to be spread out in rural areas, making in-person voter contact much more difficult. Moreover, an older party means older activists – Republican volunteers are less likely to be willing to knock on doors in the first place, instead opting to make less-effective phone calls.

This isn’t to say that the Republicans would be making a mistake by investing more heavily in field operations. This is only to say that they need to set realistic expectations about their return on investment. The most efficient form of voter contact, knocking on doors, is more efficient in Democratic strongholds. The GOP will need to take this into account when it attempts to expand its campaign infrastructure.

Even if the proposals made in the RNC’s report are adopted (which is unlikely, as the report is already being dismissed by GOP leaders), the party will still have a long way to go before it can compete with its Democratic counterparts. One can only hope that it takes them a long time to catch up.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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