Analysts continue to consider CPAC’s strategical takeaways weeks after the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), where attendees were constantly faced with both questions and propositions of how the Republican Party must, as the NRA’s David Keene put it, “adapt or die.”
If the tremendous surge in support seen recently from the right-wing political base for officials like Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, Justin Amash, and Thomas Massie--candidates that just a few years ago would have been impossible to elect-- are any indication, the GOP is, indeed, adapting.
As conservative writer George Will stated on a Sunday morning talk show recently, what he saw “at CPAC was the rise of the libertarian strand of Republicanism, which has an affected foreign policy that is a pullback from nation-building and other ambitions abroad that they never countenance from government at home, and a sense of ‘live and let live’ with subjects such as decriminalization of certain drugs and gay marriage.” Given the party’s recent string of major electoral tragedies, these are important points for consideration.
As illustrated by the views shared in various panel sessions and individual speakers at CPAC, there is unquestionably a healthy diversity of prescriptions to return the GOP to health, and the overwhelming consensus seems to be that the solution lies in messaging and little else. The problem with this diagnosis isn’t that it is inherently incorrect. Indeed, the party--especially as it once again becomes more liberty-oriented--needs a clear message rooted in principle that can galvanize voters in many demographics and provide the juice to get the political wheels of the country moving back in the right direction. However, this macro view of the GOP’s shortcomings distracts from the very real technical issues within the party’s electoral machine.
Identifying not only the party’s shortcomings but also an effective path for victory in the future requires both a narrow and broad approach. The broad approach is best expressed as the party’s message—it’s philosophy. As we saw with Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and most recently Ron Paul, a strong ideological message can ignite brush fires in the grassroots of America and inspire voters to action.
The narrow approach could be described as the nuts and bolts of any successful modern campaign: data driven efforts and effective Get Out The Vote (GOTV) strategies with an emphasis on early voting. It’s not just about the last 3 days—depending on the state in question, it’s really more about the last 30 or so.
It is, of course, no secret that GOTV is a huge component to a successful campaign, but in the game of political adaptation, it hasn’t been taken seriously enough. With the exception of a few outliers, like the state of Florida, which recently cut its early voting window from fourteen days to just eight, time allowed for early voting has been growing cycle after cycle and now at least three out of ten votes are cast before election day.
Comparing Ron Paul’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns illustrates the powerful results of combining, or improving, compelling messaging and solid ground game tactics. In 2008, Ron Paul delivered a consistent and honest message of freedom that spoke to the hearts of freedom-loving Americans in a way that few ever had before or likely will again. But as anyone who worked on that campaign can tell you, they simply didn’t have the infrastructure in place to properly handle the incredible amount of support Dr. Paul received. Under those circumstances, Ron Paul earned one million primary votes in the 2008 cycle.
No campaign is flawless in strategy or structure, but Ron Paul 2012 was a whole new ballgame. Learning from past mistakes and significantly improving both campaign infrastructure, field strategy, and GOTV tactics, Ron Paul hit the ground running with his same message of constitutionally limited government, free markets, and individualism and not only doubled his primary votes from the last cycle, but even finished in the top tier of the highly contested early primary and caucus states--something that the establishment never thought possible.
Even with these improvements, the Paul campaign’s efforts didn’t match up to those of Mitt Romney in the primaries. Although Romney certainly deserves credit for assembling an experienced and well-connected team, few would deny that his nomination as the GOP’s candidate was not actually decided on the campaign trail but rather by party leadership and establishment media outlets before the election cycle even truly began. But despite his early ordainment by the right-wing powers-that-be, Romney’s campaign was woefully inadequate in the general election and he was soundly shut out of the White House by the extremely well-organized Obama campaign.
If the GOP wants to avoid another embarrassing presidential defeat, they will need to not only adopt a unifying message similar to the one Ron Paul brought to the table, but also take a few pages out of Obama’s voter mobilization playbook, specifically the chapter on early and absentee voting.
Let’s look all the way back to John Kerry’s failed 2004 campaign. He lost the Electoral College by only 35 points which drove politicos on the left absolutely crazy. This loss came as a result of a handful of critical, but also avoidable, hits such as Ohio where Kerry effectively lost the state by around 120,000 votes.
After looking at the numbers it also taught them something that has been helping them lock up electoral victories ever since: Republicans knew how to use data driven planning to turn out voters. But tables turned between 2004 and 2012 when Romney lost the keys to the White House by 340,959 votes—that’s a swing margin of 170,479 votes.
So how could using early voting mobilization effectively have salvaged Romney’s 2012 campaign? It would have very likely led to a complete outcome reversal on election day. Obama won Florida with little more than 73,000 votes. However, Democrats had an early vote lead of 129,000 over Republicans. That’s significant. In Virginia, Obama won by 115,910 votes having brought in around 120,000 more absentee votes than John McCain had in 2008, which shows Democrats also had an edge on absentee mobilization this time around--once again learning from past mistakes while Republicans keep their heads stuck in their outdated (but trusted) playbooks. In the key state of Ohio, a total of 1.6 million votes were cast before election day. Out of those, Democrats had 96,000 vote lead on Republicans with Obama winning 103,481 votes. Finally, we look at Nevada. Obama beat Romney by only 66,379 votes. What was Obama’s early vote lead there? 47,964. Clearly, a critical lesson here is that one team recognized the changing electoral parameters and did well mobilizing early, while the other got left years behind.
Message is important, and it’s certainly what this author looks for when choosing a party or candidate to support. The GOP should, unquestionably, take that seriously if it wants to avoid being swept into the historical dustbin. However, having the right message is not, by itself, enough to win. If conservatives, libertarians, and anyone in between plan to reclaim the American government, they need to get their strategic and tactical game in order--and they need to do it now or prepare to keep losing.
NOTE: This article was written by Aaron Rainwater, Special Programs and Operations Executive at The Atlas Society and published here at The Humble Libertarian with permission from the author.