WASHINGTON — A veteran Republican digital consultant warned Thursday that a successful election this fall could set back the Republican Party’s efforts to modernize its approach to campaigns.
Michael Beach, co-founder of Targeted Victory, spoke at a gathering of technology, business and campaign executives and consultants, organized by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics and the Internet Association.
Beach, who came up through the ranks of Republican campaigns at a time when the GOP was ahead of Democrats in terms of voter targeting, said his party has actually gone backwards in technological terms over the last few electoral cycles — in part because the midterms have been “wave” elections, in 2006 for Democrats and in 2010 for Republicans.
The tea party wave of 2010, Beach said, “was great for Republicans, [but] it was the worst thing that ever happened to our profession because it just reinforced bad habits.”
“All you had to do was be standing after the primary and you won,” Beach said. “We could have done anything in ’10 and won. We could have done leaflets.”
As a result, Republican consultants and operatives did not focus on the tech advances that were being made in politics. President Barack Obama’s team had pioneered new uses of digital campaigning in 2008, and Democrats built on that experience for the next four years, while Republicans insisted that high unemployment and Obama’s unpopularity would be enough for another GOP romp in 2012.
“Senate races we worked on in ’12 were worse than the ones we worked on in ’10,” Beach said.
Republican campaign sophistication has atrophied since Karl Rove, Ken Mehlman and other GOP operatives were the first to “micro-target” voters, using a vast array of data about the electorate. President George W. Bush’s reelection campaign in 2004 was the pinnacle of the Rove-Mehlman machine’s efforts, but Republicans have since slipped backwards in many ways, Beach said.
“In 2004, you knew how many votes per precinct you had to get in order to win that state,” said Beach, who worked on voter turnout in the crucial state of Ohio that year. “Ask a campaign now how many votes they need per precinct, and you won’t find anybody [who knows] because it’s like, ‘We’re either going to win or lose based on a tidal wave.'”
The wave elections in 2006 and 2010 reinforced the impression among many Republicans that diligent, labor-intensive work on identifying, persuading and turning out voters is less important than the overall political climate.
Following Obama’s win in 2012 over Mitt Romney, due in part to a campaign that identified new voters through state-of-the-art data analytics and modeling, and turned them out with aggressive and precise recruitment, Republicans said they were going to catch up to Democrats.
The problem, Beach said, is that the same dynamic that shaped 2010 and 2012 is gearing up for the 2014 and 2016 elections.
“Guess what ’14’s going to be? I believe a tidal wave,” Beach said. Many political observers believe Obama’s declining popularity and widespread dissatisfaction with Obamacare is going to hand control of the Senate to the GOP as well as increase the party’s majority in the House this November.
If that happens, Beach said, “It’s just going to reinforce more bad habits.”
Republican consultants, he said, will observe the results and say, “‘Oh, ’12, that was just an outlier. We don’t need younger voters.'”
And that, he said, will only set the party up for a bad result in the 2016 presidential election.
“For us, I think it’s going to be a rude awakening in ’16,” Beach said.