Why Republicans are Winning at Tech
Blogging and the Internet dominated the 2004 campaign stories. Thousands of news stories concentrated on DeanforAmerica.com, MoveOn.org, and Meetup.com. However, these stories missed a key element.
Democrat-leaning sites got most of the attention, but the story that Republicans were using technology to actually win the election went largely unnoticed. The reason is simple: The kind of technology Republicans mastered is boring. Who wants to read an article about Republicans having a superior database called VoterVault or about Republicans finding new ways to target persuasive voters? This may interest you and me, but to the average reader, it’s “inside baseball.”
On the other hand, if you can write a story about thousands of people coming out of the woodwork to attend a Howard Dean Meetup – now that’s news! Of course, cynics would argue Democrats got more press on their use of technology because of media bias. I would argue the disparity came from the media’s bias toward writing interesting stories – even if they skew reality.
Whatever reason for the disparity, it is clear that while most Americans were reading about Howard Dean and Joe Trippi, Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman were doing some pretty effective work. And the thing is, we should have expected it all along. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that Republicans capitalized on technology to win the 2004 election. It has to do with the fundamental differences between Republicans (I am one) and Democrats. In short, our worldview is different.
Getting Down to Business
Here's my theory: In 2004, many Democrats viewed the use of technology as more of a game. These very creative activists put a lot of effort into blogging in the hopes of, "creating an Internet community." The trouble is, they got ahead of the average American. It’s like trying to tell your neighbor in 1980 about this thing called the DVD player. The cynical analysis is that many liberal activists have focused too much on the “fun” activities that allow one to be creative, express his opinions, and most important -- never have to do the “dirty work” of campaigning (like knocking on a stranger’s door or calling someone on the phone). But these activities are really just preaching to the converted. How many undecided voters read blogs?
Conversely, Republicans (who by nature are outcome-based) approached the use of technology in politics with the seriousness of running an efficient business. We used technology to enhance the serious and time-tested work of traditional campaigns: to identify, persuade, and turn-out voters on Election Day. In short, it’s not about having the most interesting site – it’s about winning.
The normally annoying Susan Estrich in June wrote a column that seems to corroborate my position:
At the time Dean pulled out of the race in 2004, his much-vaunted website was getting one-tenth as many hits as George Bush's. Even more important, the Bush team, under the leadership of then-Rove deputy Ken Mehlman, was embarked on a sophisticated technological project that allowed it to communicate with voters in key states and key groups the same way Amazon does with regular purchasers: Understanding more than name, address and serial number, Amazon knows what I like, and what my family likes, and what other people like me like, so that when they write to me, they know how to sell to me. So did Bush…On the Sunday before the election, Karl Rove was in a position to squeeze out every single Bush voter he needed, a capacity Democrats couldn't match.
Many Democrats view the Internet and technology as a new paradigm. However, most Republicans I know tend to see it as a tool that can help them enhance traditional grassroots tactics. (Micro-targeting, for example, is the process of using consumer and other data to determine a persons’ proclivity to vote Republican or Democrat. As Susan Estrich wrote, Amazon knows what you like – and so do many modern campaigns.) Republicans used this information to turn-out their supporters in target states like Ohio.
In August of 2003, former advisor to President Clinton, Dick Morris, wrote in FrontPageMagazine.com, “Dean may falter as John McCain did, but the inevitable replacement of television with the Internet as the fundamental tool of political communication is destined to accelerate.” That may be true of TV, but technology cannot be seen as a substitute for pressing the flesh and one-on-one, retail politics. Despite Howard Dean’s early success, it remains unknown whether or not the Internet and technology will fundamentally change the way politics is done. (Remember, Howard Dean lost to John Kerry in Iowa precisely because Kerry had a better grassroots campaign in Iowa.)
So far, Republicans seem to better grasp that the Internet has a basic problem in that it allows people to ignore political messages. Recently, I conducted an interview with Republican political consultant Paul Wilson of the media firm Wilson/Grand. Wilson/Grand does work for several Republican Members of Congress and Governors. When asked about how technology will be used in politics in the future he said:
We're going to see people in politics try very hard to make the Internet work.... We know the voter is trying to hide from intrusive ads and that's the problem with the Internet. And we, on the other hand, as political advertisers don't care at all about being intrusive. We're happy to be intrusive. We're happy to spam. We're happy to buy their email address. But what we're really trying to do is force-feed them some political information that we think would be useful -- and whether or not we can get through the filters will determine whether or not it is effective.
The point is this: Every effective tactic employed by political campaigns is, by nature, intrusive -- and annoying. Nobody likes being called on the phone, getting junk mail, or having unannounced strangers knock on their doors during dinner. We don’t like political TV ads either, so we turn the channel (when we can). Yet, the pesky, pushy campaigns that most aggressively employ these time-tested tormenting tactics are victorious on Election Day. As conservative icon and president of conservative training organization The Leadership Institute, Morton Blackwell, says, “Nothing moves in politics unless it’s pushed.”
"Pushy" voter contact techniques allow political campaigns to get their message out to undecided voters (whether they want it or not). Undecided voters typically care less about politics than partisans. They may vote out of a civic responsibility. And because of their nature, they are less likely to seek out political information -- that’s why they are undecided.
So pushing our message via TV, door-to-door, mail, and phone programs allows political campaigns to persuade undecided voters – and increases the odds people will, in fact, vote. A recent study conducted by the UT Brownsville/Texas Southmost College Center for Civic Engagement corroborates this point. Door-to-door campaigning in Brownsville, Texas increased the Latino election turnout by 10.4 percent in the 2004 general election last November. Although we have no way of knowing for sure, I suspect no website or blog could increase the turnout of any demographic by such a margin.
Someday the Internet may truly rule the political world. Until then, smart politicos will ignore the hype and look for ways to use technology and the Internet to get their message to undecided voters. If there is a way to figure this out, you can bet political strategists will do it. In the meantime, Republicans hope Democrats ignore this message – and get back to blogging about John Roberts!
Matt Lewis is a Republican campaign consultant and the author of Teaching Elephants to Talk, A Crash-Course in Campaign Communications. He blogs at www.MattLewis.org.