One year ago this week, the Republican National Committee released a wide-ranging audit of the party’s campaign operations aimed at finding out what went wrong during election 2012, when Democrats trounced Republicans for the second straight presidential cycle.
The document, called "Growth and Opportunity Project," outlined deep-seated problems with the party's approach. It recommended that GOP committees build a permanent field presence around the country, particularly in areas with large minority populations. It said the GOP needed to beef up the party's digital and data operations. During presidential election season, the party should limit the number of debates, shorten the electoral calendar and hold the convention earlier, the report recommended.
Now, a year after the group of long-standing Republican operatives drafted their best recommendations for the party's future success, Republicans are touting advancements in their ground, technology and data operations. The RNC has invested $12 million to establish permanent outreach offices across the country, and it recently opened a startup lab to test its data and tech operations. It even opened an office in Silicon Valley to attract right-leaning techies to help them build their databases.
"Today I can report, and I hope you can tell, that we've fundamentally reshaped the way we do business at the RNC," Chairman Reince Priebus told reporters Tuesday during a Christian Science Monitor-sponsored breakfast.
But, as Republicans will admit, there's still much work to be done — and mainly on the demographic-appeal front that was such an important part of the autopsy document.
Technical advances notwithstanding, the party continues to struggle to gain support with single women under 35, Hispanics and black voters. The official party platform stance against same-sex marriage is quickly putting Republicans in the minority on the issue, and is even out of sync with the opinions of young Republicans. Meanwhile, GOP lawmakers have failed to articulate a united approach to comprehensive immigration reform or make championing it one of their central issues, which the autopsy said was crucial to broadening the party.
"I think it's going to take years to do what we need to do organizationally," said Henry Barbour, an RNC national committeeman who co-authored the autopsy report. "They're beginning to make progress, but that's not something that happens in a matter of weeks or months. It's just that that is an area where we can continue to need to make progress particularly as we try to grow beyond our traditional base. This is I think an area that's going to take years, not months."
Democrats, not surprisingly, are positively gleeful when pointing these things out, and skeptical about how easily Republicans can make inroads in communities that traditionally have not supported them.
"They've hired outreach staff and placed them in communities they've never been in before. But how effective is outreach when your agenda keeps alienating the communities you are trying to reach?" said Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Shultz during a news conference following the Monitor breakfast, scheduled to rebut it.
But with midterm elections around the corner in November, Republicans still think they're in a strong position. There are enough Democratic Senate seats up for election this year in red states to give Republicans a reasonable chance to take the majority in the upper chamber. The Republican-held House is at minimal risk of falling under Democratic control. The initial implementation of President Obama's federal health care law has been an albatross for Democrats who voted for the law and continue to support it.
"I think we're in for a tsunami-type election in 2014," Priebus predicted Tuesday. "It looks like it's going to be a disaster for Democrats."
A "tsunami"! A "disaster"! Bold words from the usually soft-spoken RNC chairman, who went on to say Democrats are "in the dumps" and that Obamacare was a "poisonous issue for Democrats," and called Democrats' claims of building a 4,000-staffer ground operation a "joke." As evidence, Priebus said that national issues like the health care law were dominating local races, and that the implementation of Obamacare would bury Democrats this fall.
But when it comes to the prospect of winning the next presidential election, party operatives like Priebus aren't nearly as bullish.
Republicans plan to use the upcoming midterm elections as a beta-testing period for the presidential election two years later. They’ll test out the new data hubs they've been building since the last election on a state-by-state basis, a project they hope will give them more of a competitive edge in 2016.
"There's no doubt that our party has had a pretty good record in midterm elections and we've had a poor record when it comes to presidential elections. We're trying to address both," Priebus said, calling the presidential contest "a very different type of election with different issues that move the electorate at play."
After 2014, he added, "the question is whether or not we can build on that in 2016, put a candidate on the ballot that people want to sit down and have a beer with, and be a party that speaks to people's hopes and aspirations."
Democrats counter that despite Republican outreach efforts, the party will never make progress unless it changes its platform.
"What changes we have seen from the Republican Party are superficial and tactical, but do little to address their core problem — that they have an out-of-touch agenda," Wasserman Schultz said.