The RNC Diagnosis: Part 3 – Friends, Finance and Primaries

In developing the Growth and Opportunity Project‘s Autopsy of the 2012 election (pdf), the Republican National Committee correctly identified the reason for the party’s loss, but failed to recommend a coherent strategy to reverse it.

The report endorses primaries, campaign finance reform, and recommends various ways outside groups can get involved. Some of it’s good, some of it’s not so good, but in the end it’s a half measure where a radical change is needed.

My response to the report is in three parts:

Non-party Groups

The first thing that stands out in the report’s treatment of allies is right in the first sentence:

On the political right, there are a multitude of effective third-party groups that we will refer to as “Friends and Allies” that serve as critical components of the Republican Party. (p. 44)

Though the report goes on to clarify that these outside groups are separate legal entities, the presumption inherent in that first sentence colors the rest of the section.

The outside groups are not parts of the Republican Party, and in some cases exist precisely because the Republican Party has not upheld the principles of limited government and individual liberty — “Conservatarian” principles, as Kemberlee Kaye puts it in this brilliant critique of the report.

Though not legally connected nor in full agreement with outside groups, the Party can still show leadership. One area of the report with which I agree completely is the section on redirecting resources from paid media to local field organizing:

The incentive system does not reward nuts-and-bolts organizing and development of field staff, data collection and analytics or rigorous testing, where we must renew our focus to effectively compete with the Democrats. As a Party, we need to recognize the return on investment opportunity is incredibly ripe in developing our ground game, and friends and allies should shift material amounts of their paid media funds to organizational efforts and other means of connecting with voters. 

Naively, if only half of the $1 billion that was spent on TV advertising in 2012 had instead been divided equally among the 200,000 precincts in the US, it would have resulted in $2500 per precinct for use in registering new conservative, traditionalist, and libertarian voters, organizing campaigns at the local level, and funding backyard barbecues and other events to put a personal face on the movement.

It would take far less than $125,000 to fund volunteer activity to greatly increase Republican and independent conservatarian turnout in a given 50-precinct area.

Competitive Primaries

The report contends that the RNC should have a preference for primaries over caucuses, saying that voters, rather than party insiders, should decide who should be the party’s nominee. 

Primaries favor the well-known, which means they favor incumbents. In the age of blogs and social media it’s possible to organize an insurgency in a caucus, and the establishment doesn’t want that.

A larger issue is that primaries allow the party GOTV mechanisms to operate and be tested before their use in general elections. People who vote in primaries tend to vote in general elections, so contested primaries are a golden opportunity to increase turnout.

Uncontested primaries lead to party complacency and voter apathy. 

As a concrete example, consider the case of the Virginia presidential 2012 primary. Due to election law changes pushed through by the Republican establishment, only two candidates were able to get on the ballot. Though organizing for ballot access is a key test of leadership, Virginia’s process, changed midstream, was overly restrictive.

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding, or in this case in voter turnout. About 5 percent of Virginia Republicans turned out to vote in the presidential primary. With Virginia an important swing state, missing out on a vital opportunity to get ordinary Republicans to the polls is inexcusable.

The rush to choose a presidential nominee repeats this inexcusable failure in state after state after Super Tuesday. The choice of eventual winner is made, and voters tune out instead of turning out.  

Every incumbent should have a primary challenger in every election cycle. Even if the challenger is only there on paper, or has “no chance to win,” giving the voters a choice will lead to greater turnout. In the long term, increased name recognition for both incumbents and challengers and a deeper bench of experienced candidates benefit the party.

Incumbents don’t like contested primaries. Repubican establishment operatives say primaries waste money that could be better spent fighting Democrats. That short-term thinking has led to long-term incumbency and a decayed party structure.

They Almost Get It

The most frustrating paragraph in the entire document is this one, on pp 50-51:

The RNC must hire seasoned Regional Political Directors and field finance directors to help state parties and campaigns win from the precinct level up. We need a lot more of the Evelyn McPhail grassroots approach to politics. As the committee was told by a participant during a listening session in North Carolina, “Make the precinct captain the most important person in a Growth & opportunity project campaign.” While the 72-hour program was incredibly effective during the Bush 43 years, we need to recruit significant local volunteers, rather than shipping in outsiders to do fieldwork. This should be a neighbor-to-neighbor effort, and non-party organizations with local ties and knowledge can play a key role. 

They had the key to success given to them, discussed it, and didn’t understand it. A veteran grassroots organizer at Redstate agrees. Everything the Republican Party does should be focused on making the job of the local organizer easier and more efficient.

The seasoned regional political directors are often the problem in that regard, not the solution. The RNC and state parties should reach out to the non-party organizations to attract new members. The Republican Party is an empty, decaying shell that should be refreshed with new activists.  Inside the party structure, these new members can carry their enthusiasm and policy preferences with them as they maintain membership in both the Republican Party and non-party organizations.

Calling the 72-hour program successful is an example of the Broken Window Fallacy. It took resources away from developing an ongoing, permanent organization.  Rather than being “incredibly successful,” it was the source of the rot inside the Republican Party. By focusing efforts and resources on the final 72 hours before an election, the program, and the mindset behind it, led to the atrophy and complacency we see today. 

The report recommends (p. 51) that non-party groups also hire “field organizers at the local level who are a part of the community of voters.” While that’s probably helpful for the non-party organizations as they grow, outside groups should also be putting their members into the existing state party organizations. 

In the end, the Republican Growth and Opportunity report can have a positive impact if Republicans seize on its particulars and see them as part of a strategy to radically reform their party as the bottom-up organization to which the report gives lip service. Such a change is inevitable anyway, as technology continues to put individuals in charge of their own message delivery and communication with like-minded people.  A party that uses these trends will flourish, and Republicans would do well to make their party one that does.


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