We’ve all heard about how the GOP lost the tech game in 2012. Narwhal vs. ORCA, Silicon Valley vs. abacus-using techno-peasants. We get it. Sure, some of it is a cliche, but there was a truth to it.
Today, though, there are signs those on the right should be optimistic. I truly believe in 2014 we will see big, successful deployments of new technology and new methods in campaigns and that we’ll see campaign culture become more about analytics, math, and technology and not good ol’ boy folklore. A lot of campaigns are still hesitant to abandon the old tools and methods we’ve used for almost 75 years: television, mail, phones, voter contact, etc. – but I see a greater willingness everywhere to get with the times.
The important thing to realize is that just copying Obama’s technical magic from 2012 will never be enough. Innovative GOP organizations and consultants are building great new ways to reach voters, some even ahead of where the Democrats are today. I advise one such firm, and seeing what they can do to help candidates and campaigns understand the battlefield is amazing. The tech commitment is real.
Using these new tools to target, understand, and reach out to the voters we need will restore an essential competitive element by leveraging the growing power of big data to give ad makers, field people, and the candidate herself a deeper understanding of what makes voters tick…and more importantly, what makes them vote.
But as we move forward to a more sophisticated set of tools, tech, and training, it’s important to remember that no matter how good the hardware is, we still need the software to run it.
I don’t mean the literal software: I mean our power as storytellers, communicators, and advocates. Unless we are more committed to engaging in the culture and in speaking to the things that move the lives and hearts of Americans, the other team can be equipped with nothing but pocket calculators and still defeat us. There’s still no software to make a personal connection deep and meaningful enough to convince someone to change a vote.
Unless we tell our stories the right way, all that new technology won’t close the deal on election day. Building a robust GOP technical edge is, as my old boss likes to say, “necessary, but not sufficient.”
Barack Obama’s greatest digital advantage wasn’t just several hundred thousand lines of code, or the smartest geeks in the room. It was that the leadership of the campaign viewed using that data as the central element in their communication strategies at every level.
Those strategies were integrated into every communications tool they possessed, touching on traditional voter outreach, earned media, and – importantly – using a deeper understanding of popular culture than we seem currently capable of mustering.
It’s a disconnect we’ve got to bridge.
This doesn’t mean abandoning principled conservatism, or simply imitating what we think “the kids like these days.” We’re need to work much harder at selling positive, forward looking, relatable conservatism. The Happy Warrior cliche is real: when you’re telling your story with confidence, conviction and passion you win. Understand that conservatism with a big, smile on its face will always be more desirable than the doom and gloom we seem to be rolling in right now.
This doesn’t mean GOP candidates need to start twerking or throwing Katy Perry (I too have the eye of the tiger) lyrics into speeches, but it does mean that when it comes to reaching younger voters, and voters who are older but only lightly engaged in politics, we can’t scare them into the tall grass by being tone-deaf to the movies, television, music, and lives around us. America’s culture is today largely (not exclusively, but largely) an entertainment culture.
Some activists, elected leaders, and Republican consultants I know have a kind of deep disdain for popular culture. I get it; a lot of Republicans, particularly Evangelicals, hate pop culture because they think it’s over sexualized, vulgar, and crude. They think it’s hopelessly leftwing. They’re not always wrong.
However, pop culture is what it is: it exists whether we like it or not. It’s real. It’s everywhere. Obama connected to it. Romney seemed like he was from the 1950s. We see it time and again.
And while I may be a conservative Republican, you can bet I still love me some Britney. (Have I twerked? I’ll never tell.) Resigning the pop-culture space to Democrats closes off our ability to communicate in almost any meaningful way with millennials, X-ers and even Boomers. So what if you resent it? Use it.
I’ve seen this too often in conservative dislike of sites like BuzzFeed. Too many times conservatives miss that BuzzFeed is a platform, and it’s a platform where popular culture wraps itself around issues. It’s how we speak, read, communicate and understand today; in short bursts and funny lines from beloved tv shows…and yes, in cute animated cat GIFs. They also miss that BuzzFeed’s back-end analytics are top-notch and give their users an ability to really understand audience engagement with their content. Don’t hate the platform, utilize it to your own advantage.
One example of a conservative messing using BuzzFeed’s platform came from Ace of Spades blogger John Ekdahl during the period where the Obama Administration was pressing for U.S. involvement in Syria. His “14 Anti-War Celebrities We Fear May Have Been Kidnapped” used and garnered almost 900,000 hits. Those numbers, in any advocacy fight, are enormous. Ekdahl used the draw of celebrity, and breezy BuzzFeed style and reached nearly a million people with a cutting look at Hollywood hypocrisy and Obama’s rush to war in Syria.
During the endless debates over Obamacare, this perfect meme by Ted Cruz used a pop culture reference on a social media platform to summarize the debate perfectly.
When allegedly stuffy, dorky Republicans use a pop culture, it communicates. You can put out all the wonky policy papers you want, but real people don’t read them.
It’s the kind of thing campaigns and candidates should do naturally. Don’t send a press release: create a Tumblr or BuzzFeed page, driven by tweets and Facebook entries. Don’t think anyone is going to read 200 pages of policy. Do make a hilarious campaign Tumblr with pictures of your candidate being cute and loose and engaging (and with puppies!!!).
Sure, being a better storyteller today means you’re probably not going to write the Gettysburg address, but if you’re reaching 18 to 30-year-olds with a Tumblr or BuzzFeed post using quotes and funny GIFs from The New Girl to explain an optimistic conservative position on health care, the debt ceiling or immigration, you’ll reach more voters and engage more attention with your campaign or issue.
A lot of young people (I was one) slip into liberalism because no one from our side ever spoke to them how and where they were watching and listening. Getting our conservative messages into the culture can’t just be through country music and luck. We’ve got to work at it.
Adopting modern campaign technology was a big leap for the GOP, but it’s about to pay dividends. Understanding and leveraging the rules of popular culture to tell better stories and communicate more persuasively is what those tools are for. These new tools are cool, but what’s even better is using them to win.