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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22 Responses to “An autopsy of the autopsy: Why the RNC reboot will fail”

  1. condew says:

    “…The very word, “outreach,” is an admission that the Republican Party views minority voters as outsiders…”

    A golden observation that illuminates the heart of their problem.

  2. rmthunter says:

    Becca — you’ve got it right on the nose.

  3. Bill_Perdue says:

    When the Democrats adopt the Republicans platform and the Republicans adopt the Democrats platform what are we to think.


    “There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party … and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat. Republicans are a bit stupider, more rigid, more doctrinaire in their laissez-faire capitalism than the Democrats, who are cuter, prettier, a bit more corrupt — until recently … and more willing than the Republicans to make small adjustments when the poor, the black, the anti-imperialists get out of hand. But, essentially, there is no difference between the two parties. ” Gore Vidal

  4. Bill_Perdue says:

    When the Democrats adopt the Republicans platform and the Republicans adopt the Democrats platform what are we to think.


    “There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party … and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat. Republicans are a bit stupider, more rigid, more doctrinaire in their laissez-faire capitalism than the Democrats, who are cuter, prettier, a bit more corrupt — until recently … and more willing than the Republicans to make small adjustments when the poor, the black, the anti-imperialists get out of hand. But, essentially, there is no difference between the two parties. “ Gore Vidal

  5. Bill_Perdue says:

    Obamacare is a travesty. It’s carefully crafted to make maximum profits for insurance companies especially HMO’s and pharmaceutical giants.

    Obama betrayed (1) the public option and never even considered socialized medicine, which is what’s really needed. His betrayal came after he had a couple of dozen secret meetings (2) with corporate owners and manager from insurance companies, HMO’s and Big Pharma. His betrayal was the result of his acceptance of over $20 million in bribes – aka, campaign contributions – from the same people. (3) Congress got similar bribes. (4) Most Americans, including the Congress, have a very fuzzy of idea of the basics of Obamacare and the corruption that crafted it.
    public option

    (2) “President Barack Obama has hosted at least 27 meetings with some of the most influential private health-industry executives in the country in an effort to lacate or at least quiet potential opponents of reform in what remains a tenuous legislative
    process… On Wednesday morning, the Los Angeles Times published a story revealing that the Obama White House was refusing to release records of meetings it had allegedly held with 18 private health care industry executives (the number ended up being 15). Later in the day, CREW filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security seeking to obtain those records.

    (3) “Obama Received $20 Million from Healthcare Industry in 2008 Campaign – Almost three times the amount given to McCain – While some sunlight has been shed on the hefty sums shoveled into congressional campaign coffers in an effort to influence the Democrats’ massive healthcare bill, little attention has been focused on the far larger sums received by President Barack Obama while he was a candidate in 2008. A new figure, based on an exclusive analysis created for Raw Story by the Center for Responsive Politics, shows that President Obama received a staggering $20,175,303 from the healthcare industry during the 2008 election cycle, nearly three times the amount of his presidential rival John McCain. McCain took in $7,758,289, the Center found. “


  6. karmanot says:

    And the D$mo reboot seems to be succeeding. They are becoming the old Republicans.

  7. BeccaM says:

    In summary: The GOP sees elections as nothing more than an advertising campaign to be won. Over and over and over again, their spokesweasels and failed candidates try to claim, “We didn’t get our message out.” Or, “We didn’t communicate our message effectively.”

    No. It was communicated perfectly adequately. It never occurs to them that their message — their positions — are odious and contrary to what most people outside their epistemically closed bubble actually want. They want perpetual war; large majorities of us want all the wars to be over. They want to privatize Social Security and Medicare; almost nobody outside the 0.01% wants that, not even among the GOP faithful. They want to oppress LGBT people; a majority of the country is now solidly in favor of marriage equality and anti-discrimination rights. They want to deport all the immigrants from brown countries…and, um, well, those people are increasing in numbers and they do vote. The GOP candidates regularly spout casually racist and misogynistic BS — and then wonder why African Americans and women don’t want to vote for them.

    The GOPers are so convinced they’re right and everybody else is wrong, it doesn’t occur to them you’re not going to win the votes of people you’re actively denigrating. They feel there is no need to persuade, only to sell.

    But some of them clearly do know all this, hence the systematic strategies of gerrymandering, vote suppression, and — in some cases — the outright theft of elections.

  8. Naja pallida says:

    Why the reboot will fail is very simple: Their diagnosis of the problem is wrong. While it is true that their messaging sucks, the reason that it sucks so badly is because their policies are terrible. They have a cancer rotting the core of the party, and while they have recognized their uncontrollable diarrhea is a problem, they have decided that what they will do to address it is invest in deodorizer.

  9. Krusher says:

    My favorite part of the autopsy, I think, was the $10 million they’re going to spend on “outreach” to the people who they’re actively trying to disenfranchise.

  10. cole3244 says:

    i’m old enough that i won’t be around to enjoy it for an extended period, too bad for me.

  11. nicho says:

    The GOP is “rebooting” in the same way that the Vatican is “rebooting.” Nothing core is going to change. They’ll merely paint a smiley face on everything.

  12. slappymagoo says:

    Their other problem with “data” and “messaging” is that they tend to reject the results of that “data” and “messaging” if it sounds wrong to their delicate ears rather than endure any sort of course correction. They’re still looking at their losses in 2008 and 2012 and thinking they were robbed by ACORN, because they rejected the analysis and told others to do the same.

  13. ARP says:

    But if the GOP concedes and supports immigration reform and gay marriage (mostly likely in the form of a lesser civil unions), will that put a large number of single issue voters back in play? It’s a good problem to have, but its a problem nonetheless.

    Sure, the GOP will upset some of their base, but will the reduced turnout of the base be counteracted by single issue voters who may want to take a second look at the GOP’s rebranding? Let’s not kid ourselves, the GOP economic policies will stay the same, but with evil geniuses like Lutz, et. al. it’s not so hard to believe that people will buy in to the rebranding.

  14. wmforr says:

    Now you just keep off of Miss Piggy! She’s doing the best she can.

  15. wmforr says:

    As witness the large number of people who, when polled, are against “Obamacare”, but when asked about its provisions, favor every one of them.

  16. Yes, and I think that, paired with the growing Latino population, and the realization that immigration reform is quickly becoming inevitable, and millions of new voters along with it, along with young people’s disdain for anti-gay politics pushing them towards dems

  17. That’s what I worry about too – that in the end they’ll see this as a marketing problem, rather than a policy problem. Ironically, the dems have the opposite problem. They market so poorly that they assume they have a policy problem, are too far to the left, so they move closer to the republicans, and then still get beaten on the message.

  18. nicho says:

    Jon, you underestimate the gullibility of the American people. The corporatist media, given three weeks, can sell them anything.

  19. Is it just me or do many of these proposals have a kind of top-heavy, “Let’s throw money at consultants and see what sticks,” feel to them? One imagines for example that the GOP leadership, in setting up their data analytics institute, will pick some self-styled expert in polling and political strategy–maybe the CEO of some whizbang political consulting firm–and drive a dumper truck full of cash up to his door in hopes that the “expert” will work his magic.

  20. cole3244 says:

    one thing that is contributing to the gop losing is that the old ignorant white bigots are dying off, finally, there is hope for the future as long as age takes its toll as it has in the past.

  21. sunmusing says:

    Heh, heh, heh…I just had a thought on one of the reasons the GOP lost…Karl Rove was a Soros plant…or for that matter….Karl Rove is a potted plant…but not as smart….

  22. caphillprof says:

    Has anyone done a study on how right wing, conservative, wing nut trolls are affecting the Republican brand?

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