It was supposed to be the answer to a party in crisis.
After the Republican Party’s shellacking by President Obama’s digital army in 2008, a group of influential young consultants preached a new doctrine of GOP politics aimed at organizing and expanding their numbers through the Internet — a transformation that would help draw a whole new generation into the party fold.
Republicans now have the iPhone apps, rapid-response tweets, Facebook likes and microtargeting that put them on par with Democrats. But the digitally fueled push to capture new voters is also a reminder of how much ground the GOP still needs to make up in attracting younger and more diverse supporters.
Republican strategist David All, for one, had imagined that tech-savvy, young “Netflix Republicans” would flock to a revived GOP that had created a new community and a bigger party tent through the Internet.
Another GOP strategist, Mindy Finn, similarly described the digital push as part of a bigger transformation. “The Republican Party cannot reboot if it’s viewed only as a party of old, crusty white guys,” she told The Washington Post in November 2008 as she was launching a new digital platform to “Rebuild the Party.”
But as social media and digital tools have become increasingly mainstream — no longer the domain of the young and the hip — the early stages of GOP’s digital revolution have tended to do more to revive its traditional base of support among older, white voters than expand and diversify the party on a grass-roots level.
Youthful enthusiasm has fallen for Obama since 2008, but that doesn’t mean that young people are flocking to Romney instead. Among eligible voters under 30, an October poll from the Harvard Institute of Politics found that approval of Mitt Romney is at 36 percent, compared to 55 percent for Obama — only a few points above John McCain’s performance with the same age group, which he lost by a 32-66 margin.
Romney has also failed to make inroads with minorities, drawing a full 91 percent of his vote from white voters, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News tracking poll, which showed how the racial gap between the two parties has grown bigger than in 2008. And once again, Republicans fallen far behind Obama in terms of small donors, despite some high-profile successes in generating such grass-roots enthusiasm in isolated congressional races.
The sum total isn’t what some of the GOP’s earliest digital gurus had anticipated. “I thought if I armed everyone with the right tools and taught everyone how to use them, ultimately, the end result would be change. That’s not what happened,” says All, 33.
The GOP’s new digital prowess could still help the party prevail next week, as the Romney campaign makes its last-minute push to generate enthusiasm and get out of the vote. But that victory may be in spite of the country’s changing demographics, not because of them.
The digital divide
Well before 2008, Democrats had an edge online, with presidential candidate Howard Dean’s early use of Meetup.com to launch his insurgent 2004 bid, the online fundraising outfit ActBlue, and a liberal blogosphere that first came to define the “netroots.”
The left’s new digital momentum helped Democrats surge to victory in 2006 — particularly with support from young people, whose turnout rose sharply that year. It also gave birth to a new generation of young digital activists and operatives who were among the earliest adopters of social media and online platforms that were just beginning to go mainstream.
Meanwhile, GOP digital consultants like Finn would be routinely mistaken for an IT help desk. “There were people who thought we could fix their computers,” she recalls.
Finn and All were among the young Republican consultants who’ve spent much of the past decade urging their own party to catch up. Finn help to found the first new media department at the Republican National Committee in 2005, working together with GOP digital guru Patrick Ruffini. All led the push on Capitol Hill, helping then-Rep. Jack Kingston start the first congressional blog in 2005 and launching a conservative equivalent to ActBlue in 2007.
But it wasn’t until Obama’s victory — powered by online fundraising and block-by-block, Web-fueled organizing — that Republican officials finally started taking their warnings to heart.
“It was a wake-up call for a lot of people,” said Liz Mair, the former online communications director for the Republican National Committee. McCain’s team had a concerted media and blog outreach effort, she said, but it was clear that the Democratic approach was more useful in “getting people to actually submit absentee ballots.”
But the GOP’s young digital set also saw a chance for something bigger to happen. It wasn’t just the Internet that had delivered the White House to Obama, but a broad coalition of voters who were wired into the campaign. To compete, Republicans would accomplish the same.
Less than three days after Obama’s victory, a group of under-40 Republican operatives led by Ruffini and Finn penned a manifesto for the party to make the Internet “our #1 priority in the next four years,” all while overcoming the Democrats’ “more than 2-to-1 advantage with young voters.” More than 10,000 online activists agreed.
All had a similar vision for the GOP’s digital future, one in which he imagined a whole new generation would follow in the footsteps of Johnny Ramone, the unlikely punk rock Republican. “For those of us under the age of 30, Reagan is merely someone we admire and study about in history books or through stories our elders tell us,” All wrote in 2007. “If Reagan were alive today, would he use YouTube religiously to connect with us better? Absolutely.”
The Republican establishment promised to shape up: In one discussion coordinated by All in April 2009, the RNC’s new media director assured grass-roots conservatives that the party would use social media to make “authentic digital handshakes” and connect better with voters.
The GOP renaissance online
Not long after, the digital tide finally began to turn for Republicans. But it didn’t happen the way that many had expected even a year or two earlier.
On Sept. 9, 2009, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) interrupted Obama in the middle of a major speech before Congress, shouting “You lie!” after the president denied that his health-reform law would cover illegal immigrants. Hired by Wilson within 24 hours of the outburst, All took to Twitter, released a YouTube video, pushed the issue to conservative bloggers, and advertised on the Drudge Report, helping him raise more than $1 million within days after the outburst.
Just a few months later, the right’s new digital momentum would hand Republicans an even bigger victory. In January 2010, an unexpected surge of grass-roots support propelled Scott Brown into the Senate, with more than $12 million raised online in just a few weeks, which Ruffini’s firm helped process. “That was the tipping point,” he says. Digital was no longer going to be an afterthought.
Such successes were powered, in good part, because of the rising tea party, whose members organized themselves through social networks and Interent coalitions to rally, fundraise and spread the word. “I credit the Tea Party with snapping the Republican Party into understanding the power of social media,” says Kristen Soltis, a GOP communications adviser to Crossroads Generation, a group affiliated with Karl Rove's SuperPAC American Crossroads.
Republicans finally had a digital revolution that led to results, with a Web-savvy tea party that helped them retake the House in 2010. But it was one powered by activists who were more likely to be older, whiter, and more conservative than the rest of population, according to one widely circulated CNN study. Young people largely stayed at home: under-30 voters made up just 11 percent of voters that year — the lowest percentage in 20 years and down from 18 percent in 2008.
“Hindsight is 20/20. Everyone is like, ‘Facebook — young people are on Facebook.’ Then we found out within a year, everyone who was signing up and using Facebook wasn’t 25 years old. They were your mom,” says Mair. In fact, a 2010 Pew study found that the fastest growing users of social media were over 50.
While Romney has gained nearly 8.6 million “likes” on Facebook, they’re from users who most likely are between 45-54 years old. Obama now has 29.4 million Facebook likes. The most popular age group? Users who are between 18 to 24 years old.
The party’s shift rightward also may be keeping the GOP from attracting as many young and minority supporters. “Millennials, at least so far, hold ‘baked-in’ support for a more activist government,” the Pew Research Center concluded in a 2011 report. Among voters younger than 30, “you see far more moderation regarding social issues, specifically around immigration, same-sex,” said John Della Volpe, polling director at the Harvard Institute of Politics. The Republicans’ rightward shift on immigration may also be dampening their support among Hispanics, who are overwhelmingly supporting Obama.
Digital strategists across the political spectrum agree that new technology won’t make a difference if the message doesn’t resonate. Hispanics are heavy users of mobile technology, “so doing more on the mobile front should enable you to make more inroads with Hispanics,” said Mair. “But it’s just a fact that there are Hispanics out there who frankly feel that the Republican Party hates them."
The final push
The GOP’s digital strategy could still give them a much-needed push in the final weeks of a tight race, particularly as young people’s enthusiasm for Obama has faded.
Ruffini, now 34, is helping Crossroads Generation make an eleventh-hour push to reach young voters through videos aired on ESPN and targeted mobile ads at football games and music festivals. The Romney campaign, for its part, has played up its outreach on mobile technology and has rushed to replicate Obama’s use of voter data to micro-target specific groups.
Republicans also have the digital infrastructure to amplify big triumphs like Romney’s first debate performance against Obama. “With instant access to information comes instant shifts in momentum, as we saw after the first presidential debate,” says Finn.
But even the party’s digital evangelists now stress that digital media is no panacea — whether for their side or the opposition. “That the all-star Obama team couldn’t get anything going on Twitter last night shows how facts on the ground > social media strategy,” Ruffini tweeted the day after the first presidential debate.
“You’re not going to only win over young voters by having a great investment in digital,” says Finn. “There is no guarantee. There is certainly an opportunity.”
She also points out that a digitally powered GOP has opened the way for more diverse politicians to emerge since 2008. “We see more candidates — young, female and non-white—running for office and winning,” she said.
All, for his part, isn’t sticking around Washington to see the results. Fed up with the need to “destroy the other side,” he’s since moved to San Francisco, become a Burning Man enthusiast, and plunged into the tech start-up world.
“I always saw myself more as a unifier. Ultimately, I left because I’m not a divisive person,” says All. “I didn’t want to use these superpowers to be divisive.”