Republican Leaders Have Obama Campaign Envy

Beth Reinhard
January 26, 2013

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — For all the grumbling about President Obama at this week's gathering of Republican Party leaders, there's one thing they concede he's really good at: winning elections.

So many of them are eager to adopt strategies ripped from the Democratic campaign playbook: deploying campaign operatives in battleground states year-round; building "relationships" and "trust" in Hispanic and African-American neighborhoods; using social media to bring people together face to face; and most of all, a lot of "listening" to the grassroots. (Recipients of the Obama campaign’s earnest and frequent e-mails get it.)

“Community organizing? Sign me up!" said Florida Republican Party Chairman Lenny Curry, alluding to the president’s former occupation and the underlying spirit of his grassroots campaign. “We’re going to find ways to engage with diverse communities.”

“It’s about finding out what the people in a precinct care about, because if you know that, then they are more likely to listen to you,” said North Carolina Republican Party Chairman Robin Hayes, echoing the Obama campaign’s success at compiling an unprecedented amount of information about individual voters in order to connect with them.  

While there’s overwhelming consensus that the Republican National Committee needs to ramp up outreach to an increasingly diverse electorate and update its technology for voter contacts, Republicans remain divided on how deep their problems go. Can they make another run at Hispanic voters simply by changing their “tone” or by upping their investment in Spanish-language media, or does the party need to offer new policy prescriptions, like immigration reform? The RNC’s Growth and Opportunity Project, which is collecting input from rank-and-file Republicans and offering recommendations for future campaigns, is not a policymaking body. More telling will be the upcoming battle on Capitol Hill over offering legal residency to the 11 million illegal immigrants in this country, which will undoubtedly shape the GOP’s ability to court minority voters in 2014 and 2016.

Even more complicated for Republicans will be positioning themselves on issues considered anathema to their conservative base, like abortion and gay marriage, but finding increasing acceptance in the mainstream and especially among women and young voters.

“We talked a lot more about messaging than policy,” said Oklahoma Republican Party Chairman Matt Pinnell. “It’s outreach to all of the above. We don’t need to water down our policies or back away from our principles, but it’s the way we talk about those issues.”

Ari Fleischer, a White House spokesman under former President George W. Bush and one of five leaders of the Growth and Opportunity Project, put it this way: “Republicans talk policy and Democrats talk people. Republicans can learn from Democrats how to make those connections."

What’s unclear is whether the strategies pioneered by a history-making president can be replicated at a time when the Republican Party is casting about for leadership. “Is it House Speaker John Boehner? Our presidential candidates in 2016? Or a bunch of people on cable TV trying to raise their profile?” asked Mississippi-based campaign strategist Henry Barbour, another Growth and Opportunity Project cochair. Then-Senate candidate Obama rose to national prominence in his speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, when he dismissed the idea of “red” states and “blue” states and declared “there’s the United States of America.” He went on to remake the 2008 campaign map in his presidential run by sweeping states that hadn’t voted Democrat in decades.

“Being a blue state is not a permanent diagnosis,” said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus on Friday, taking Obama's cue. “We must be a party concerned about every American in every neighborhood.”

Priebus also vowed to develop a “permanent, national field infrastructure,” an operation that could cost the party millions of additional dollars. Colorado Republican Party Chairman Ryan Call said that already he is raising money to put “regional campaign organizers” on the ground year-round, four by March and eight to 10 by the end of the year. “We’re not waiting for the RNC to do it,” he said. “We need to be engaging with voters all of the time, not just five months before the election.”

Sounds familiar. Shortly after the 2008 election, Obama’s team launched a permanent campaign apparatus called Organizing for America to nurture and grow the grassroots network built during the campaign. The group had limited success promoting the administration’s agenda but undoubtedly laid the early groundwork for his reelection bid. Now the organization is retooling as a tax-exempt organization outside the Democratic National Committee.

“As a party, we must recognize that we live in an era of permanent politics,” Priebus said. “We must stop living nominee-to-nominee, campaign-to-campaign. As we saw this election, our opponent benefited from a multiyear head start.”

Priebus was overwhelmingly reelected to a second term at an uneventful meeting Friday that contrasted with the fireworks two years ago when financial problems sunk former Chairman Michael Steele’s reelection bid, despite Republican gains in the 2010 election. Priebus is widely praised for paying off the $24 million debt he inherited.

“Ordinarily you’d think we’d be throwing folks overboard, but instead we are taking a step back,” said Massachusetts GOP National Committeeman Ron Kaufman, who added that the national party and Mitt Romney's campaign together raised $1 billion. “People credit Reince Priebus for bringing us back from the abyss.”

Kaufman was a top Romney adviser who admitted to still feeling “depressed, actually it’s more of a funk.” What has uplifted many GOP activists after Romney’s resounding loss are their leaders back home. That 30 of the nation’s governors are Republicans was repeatedly mentioned during this week’s party gathering. So was the promise of the potential Republican field in 2016, a younger and more diverse crowd exemplified by the 41-year-old Indian-American governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, who addressed the activists Thursday night.

On the Democratic side, most of the possible 2016 contenders are white men, with the notable exception of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Meantime, the RNC is reviewing 24,000 responses to its online survey, talking to hundreds of activists and political pros, and scheduling "listening sessions" from Miami to Seattle. The effort is reminiscent of the Obama team's efforts to help volunteers feel invested. "It's not copying Obama," Kaufman said. "It's catching up."