A presidential campaign is like developing a car. It has to be attractive and stylish on the outside so customers who know and care nothing about engines and fuel economy will be willing to be seen in it. It has to have a good GPS device so it doesn’t get lost ( i.e. a message). But it also needs an engine, the internal guts of a good party and campaign structure. This is the least appreciated aspect of presidential politics among pundits (who think solely in terms of message and ideological purity far too often) and, perhaps, the most important. The Obama campaign was firing on all cylinders; the Republican side was not.
What can be done going forward? I’ve got ten suggestions for tuning up the Republican presidential campaign engine:
1. No more 2004 Bush campaign veterans: What they know (polling, ad making) is wrong and what they don’t know (cable ad buying, new media) is too vast. A new crop of savvy, young campaign operatives who are culturally sophisticated and new media knowledgable has to be groomed and culled so it can run a 21st century presidential campaign.
2. Get out the vote: Clearly, in a time when rabid Republicans were pumped up the get-out-the-vote operation did not deliver enough available R’s and independents to the polls. Early voting, absentee voting, volunteer recruitment, small-donor development and the rest need to be modernized to compete with the Democratic machine.
3. Change the primary debates: No more 20-debate primary seasons. No more feeding frenzies in which liberal media figures drop scraps into the pool and insight bloodletting. A reasonable number of debates, and more important, non-confrontation forums in which candidates explain not only what they believe but also how they are going carry that message are needed. One of the more informative and useful events in the 2012 primary was the Palmetto, Fla., forum in which candidates appeared in succession. Yes, candidates need to be debate-savvy and prepared, but primary debates need to be constructive tools in culling the candidates, not the first round of Democratic oppo research. Oh, and if a candidate wants to participate in a GOP debate, he or she should be willing to endorse the eventual winner.
4. Change the primary line-up: Sorry, Iowa but your wacky caucus can’t be the start of the presidential race. Republicans need a better mix of early states which are more representative of the electorate as a whole. In addition to Florida, one or more of the critical general election swing states (Colorado, Virginia, Ohio) should be early in the process. Last time the proportional primary rules dragged the process out interminably, preventing a timely jump to the general election. The calendar and mix of winner-take-all and proportional races should be adjusted. Wherever possible, low turnout and unreliable caucuses should be dumped.
5. Do more than pay lip service to coalition outreach: The Republican Jewish Coalition (which has a wonderful operation tasked with the near impossible task of cultivating a stubbornly Democratic community) needs to be duplicated so that fundraising, candidate support and training, third party ad fundraising and the rest can make inroads among nonwhite voters. Luis Fortuno unfortunately lost his race for Puerto Rico governor, but he’d be the ideal person to begin an effective Hispanic coalition.
6. Rethink political advertising: The same grainy ad bombardment that saturates the airwaves isn’t working for Republicans. Early candidate definition, more compelling messaging, better ad buying and a better assessment of the relative value of paid and earned TV has to be assessed. (A great outing on “Meet the Press” doesn’t counteract months of negative ads in Ohio, for example).
7. Prepare for a D +6 electorate: Republicans, including pollsters, were certain the Obama team couldn’t duplicate the 2008 electorate (D +7). In fact it came darn close. With that starting point, Republicans have to recalibrate everything from polling to GOTV. maybe that will not continue after the Obama era, but Republicans should be prepared that it will.
8. Young voters: Obama was able to turn out younger voters as an even bigger percentage of the electorate than he did in 2008 (although in absolute terms there were not as many young Obama voters as 2008). Republicans can’t wait until 2016 to throw together “Students for Marco” or “Students for Jindal” groups. The cultivation, training and recruitment of college and young adult Republicans have to improve, beginning now. The debt and the job environment are powerful issues but they have to be personalized ( Your share of the debt is X.). Libertarians have made freedom and opposition to big government “cool,” and Republicans need to follow suit. (As I’ve argued before, moving on from the gay marriage issue will help.)
9. Dump the national convention: The money could be better used in get-out-the-vote operations. It makes no sense to put 3,000 delegates in a venue with 10,000 members of the mainstream media and expect to get positive coverage. The party doesn’t need a platform (or platform fights); its presidential candidate needs an agenda. If the candidate and a VP want to accept the nomination with a big speech, have a single night and use the left over money to buy 1/2 hour blocs in key battle states for glossy videos and cheery testimonials.
10. Media relations: The mainstream media is infuriating to conservatives, especially in presidential years in which they invariably block and tackle for the other side. That said, the party absolutely must develop communications teams and spokespeople who are TV savvy, message-sophisticated and, in a presidential operation, have the ear and authority of the candidate. Interacting in a professional way and providing information in response to reasonable requests is essential, rather than deciding to freeze out and glare at the mainstream media. Much of this is equally applicable to conservative media. If you can’t get through a half hour with Jon Stewart, provide information to soften the blow of a “New York Times” hit piece, quietly work with reporters and/or editors who have gotten a story wrong (follow up with new information, for example), be able to shift storylines in a flash based on breaking events or get your surrogates on the air, you’re not ready to be a communications adviser at the presidential level. If there are not such people in the stable of Republican press gurus, the GOP needs to set up a press school to prepare its professionals.