The Rebuild the Party plan has often been characterized as a way to remake the party through technology. Though we've sometimes slipped in using that word to describe certain elements of the plan -- I generally feel uncomfortable with it being pigeonholed as a "technology" plan. I've generally struck "technology" from my vocabulary, taking instead about "new media" or simply, the "Internet" or when talking about a generational shift in fundraising or a 435 district strategy, wholesale party reform. Why? Because the word "technology" reinforces old siloed habits of thinking and implies that the solution is spending money on cool tech toys, rather than a quantum shift in approach.
If there is one thing the Republican Party is actually pretty good at right now, it's investing in "technology." From Voter Vault to the tools on GOP.com, the Republican Party has invested millions of dollars over the years in building the best political data-mining, microtargeting, and GOTV applications in politics.
This is vitally important. And it must continue. But the Rebuild plan focuses for the most part on something wholly different than these vital campaign technologies (where the GOP has to date held an advantage): getting the warm bodies who will actually use the technology and volunteer and donate.
The difference between the Bush '04 campaign and the Obama '08 is simple: the Obama campaign did the same thing, but with ten times more people. Technology was the instrument, but message was the impetus behind this shift.
Getting people to participate by the millions is the biggest job of the next RNC Chairman. That will require a wholesale overhaul in our message and how we communicate. First, the leadership and the grassroots will have to collaborate to shape the message. However one felt about the immigration debate, imposing change from the top as an elite project hatched at the White House was never going to fly politically. Ditto for spending, Medicare Part D, and to a lesser extent, education. The days of a leader deciding a message in a vacuum without grassroots input are over. There has got to be some buy-in from the grassroots -- or else you'll have a hollowed-out party with no boots on the ground. This is a pragmatic matter of survival as much as it is one of principle.
It also means changing our style of communication in a new era. Leaders have to be accessible, open, aggressive, and willing to throw the playbook out the window when necessary. Technology has made it easier to filter bottom-up input so that the good ideas rise to the top, so there is no excuse for at least some personal engagement with new media. Unless you're the guy with the nuclear launch codes, you're not too important to Twitter or blog at least every now and again.
Some of these reforms are substantive (changing the message) and others are meta (making people feel invested by applying a personal touch). And none of them are really dependent on technology -- I consider the Internet, blogs, Twitter, and YouTube to be media not technology per se. Here are a couple of other paradigms to think about in evaluating this fundamental shift in politics:
Push vs. Pull
By far the biggest mindset-change the RNC Chairman must -- and I reiterate, must -- wrap his arms around is that media is moving away from "push" to "pull." An inordinate amount of time at the committee -- and by political conultants everywhere -- is spent on shaping, testing, and coordinating messages that are pushed out to voters. As in, how many pieces of mail can we push out there? How many phone calls or volunteer door knocks can we push out there? And ultimately, how much media can we buy -- which is the push equivalent of the magic sin button. The messages themselves don't always have to be very interesting, as long as they're proven and poll-tested.
All of these methods are the political equivalent of spam. As in, an unsolicited contact to a voter who wasn't asking for it, or in another word, advertising. Spam is perhaps a harsh way of putting it, because when repeated massively these touches are effective, and voters have come to expect a heavy volume of unsolicited contact around election time (in contrast to spam e-mails, where the expectation is that just one is a nuisance).
However, the effectiveness of Push is declining. With a fragmented media landscape and voters being exposed to literally thousands of marketing messages every single day, only extraordinarily relevant narratives get through. Obama's "hope." Palin's personal appeal that the base understood on day one.
The Republican Party's answer to this problem has been a very heavy dose of microtargeting aided by technology. This is very important -- campaign money isn't limitless, and the vast majority of it will be spent in push media even in an efficient Internet-driven marketplace. It's worthwhile getting as much bang for your buck as possible by targeting your messages to the people most likely to act on them.
But in terms of the paradigm shift that needs to occur in thought processes if not in budgeting, microtargeting and database technology is the wrong frame of reference.
Because you can't spam people on the Internet -- not effectively anyway -- you have to get people to come to you. This is what people inside Republican campaigns fundamentally failed to grasp at the very moments when Dean and Obama were happening. The conventional wisdom was that these campaigns were good at "technology" that they "used" to reach more voters -- a very Push way of thinking.
What real net-driven campaigns are actually about is creating a nucleus of excitement around an extraordinary or unique or even clever idea that can stand on its own with zero advertising. And then they get their activists to self-identify by the millions and engage at ever higher levels. Those millions of self-identified activists that are pulled in are almost always more valuable than the tens of millions of contacts that a traditional organization pushes out -- even with the most sophisticated targeting. Nor is this an insight unique to campaigns. It's the secret behind the success of companies like Apple. It's not that these organizations don't advertise and market themselves brilliantly. It's that the advertising is gravy because the core product is so compelling.
The most important pieces of Obama's campaign were built around this Pull model -- everything from a different type of brand identity, to a very simple, clean and compelling message that was almost apolitical.
The next RNC Chairman must be smart and nimble enough to create a series of Pull moments that generate millions of signups around specific issues. Drill Now created such a moment for the Right last year, and a GOP with the backbone to stand in opposition things like an $800 billion expansion of government will have no trouble revitalizing its grassroots.
Activity vs. Control
People who run political organizations must face a simple philosophical choice: do they want more activity or more control over what happens on their behalf?
To date, most political professionals would say more control. With the rise of the Internet expanding the amount of work that can realistically be done by the grassroots, that is increasingly becoming the wrong bet.
Look at My.BarackObama.com. There was very little filtering and very little control over what was said and done on that network. This sometimes led to mini-controversies over particularly stupid postings on the site -- controversies that nonetheless never seriously damaged the campaign. In return for a loosening of control and acceptance of a certain level of risk, came an exponential increase in the amount of work that the grassroots could do on behalf of the campaign.
That the Obama campaign was very tightly message discliplined was the icing on the cake. What enabled this freedom to coexist with a certain modicum of control is that the candidate ran on a very simple message that even the most casual supporter wanted to repeat -- which actually amplified a sense of message discipline in a decentralized manner. There was very little danger of a supporter going off message because the message was very easily understood.
Contrast this to many Republican officeholders and campaigns. Either a politician decides to show "leadership" by taking a position at odds with his base without bothering to explain it. Or they explain positions that are in agreement with the base in uninspiring, convoluted terms. Or, more frequently, they don't walk the walk, spouting populist, poll-tested rhetoric one minute and voting for TARP the next -- in addition to giving off the sense in all the intangible ways that they're a creature of official Washington first. This is all a very longhanded way of saying such figures are inauthentic.
Guys like McCain and Biden have done a great job of seeming authentic about being Washington insiders, but both have faced disaster getting elected President in their own right. Still, it's better to be honest and authentic about a flawed political persona than to straddle the fence, pleasing nobody. This authenticity is the only way to align your message with a passionate audience that's waiting for it.
The bottom line is that no campaign manager can expect absolute control over what is said and done on behalf of his candidate. The best hope of imposing order on chaos is to align your message with what the grassroots are saying. If your campaign narrative is compelling, and is one that people instinctively get without rote repetition, you won't have to be top-down, and can get all the benefits of a bottom-up campaign with built-in message discipline. See "Hope" and "Change."
What I've discussed here is an attitude change that dictates certain uses of technology among other things. This attitude change must precede the "technology."
The RNC can acquire the best social networking technology on the market, but if it's used to push the same Beltway-centric talking points, it will lie fallow. The technology will be great, but no one will use it.
Over the next four years, the RNC must learn to speak in the voice of grassroots activism and not of Washington. This will hopefully become easier now without White House control. Communications to the press should be de-emphasized in favor of strategic communication to the masses of activists and voters that the web makes possible. This communication must be two-way. The RNC and the party more broadly needs to listen to what its various constituencies are telling them, and use the best elements as the cornerstone of its message to the country.