Of all the notions floating around in Republican operative circles nowawadays, there’s one in particular that deserves a lot more scrutiny: the notion that to win digitally, the GOP can’t simply copy the left, but it needs to “leapfrog” it.
This idea gets a lot of traction because it seems like a perfectly common-sensical statement that no one could disagree with. The problem is that the people making this argument often use it as a way to sound smart on tech issues without actually having any idea of what the party would do to leapfrog. While no one is arguing that simply copying the Left is a winning strategy, beware of anyone who tells you that there are shortcuts to innovation. To actually understand what others have done right, you have to learn to do it for yourself. Only then are you going to be in a position to figure out how to leapfrog.
The notion that technology progresses only as a series of essentially unpredictable “leapfrogs” is also fairly ignorant of history. It may appear that way to those not as well versed (look how the iPhone just obliterated the Wintel monopoly!) but almost always the breakthrough innovations had been predicted long before they actually happened. The more surprising thing about most technology shifts is not how quickly the new guys caught up, but how long the incumbents (IBM, Microsoft, Blackberry) are able to hang on even when the writing is on the wall.
When I was at the RNC, we got a visit from someone who is now the CEO of a major technology company, and who’s probably one of the five astutest players in the industry overall. When asked what the “next big thing” would be, the answer was “some combination of mobile and social networking.” Facebook was just catching on at the time, but that precise statement was a dead-on description of Twitter, which was maybe a few weeks old then. My knowledge of the technology industry at the time was pretty much limited to reading TechCrunch, but the prediction seemed perfectly obvious. If anything, it seemed too conservative. But it’s exactly what happened.
The same is true of digital politics. For the most part, we are not doing things in 2013 that would have seemed completely foreign a decade ago — but we have learned to do them better and at scale. For instance, email is still king. The main difference now is that the downside of screwing it up system-wide is in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Take for instance what was probably the most imporant innovation of 2012, using large-scale analytical survey modeling to paint a real-time picture of the electorate. Dynamic modeling was an innovation… first introduced in Barack Obama’s 2008 Iowa Caucus campaign. This was five years ago. Republicans who claim to have been blindsided by the Obama 2012 machine forget that it was only an iteration of the 2008 Obama campaign, which digitally was an iteration of the 2003-4 Howard Dean campaign, whose ability to raise money via email was learned from MoveOn.org, which was founded in 1998. (I highly recommend Daniel Kreiss’s Taking Our Country Back for an unvarnished look at how all of this unfolded.) The progress of technology in politics is not a story of dramatic “leapfrogs” where people scrapped what had been done before, but of learning, tweaking, and iterating. There were no shortcuts. 2012 was a product of 2008 which was a product of 2004 which was a product of 1998.
The challenge before Republicans is exciting — and also very daunting. Republicans face of the challenge of having to replace virtually their entire campaign apparatus with something more digitally centric, not as a value-added hack as the Democrats did, but as a matter of survival. The predicament facing many traditional forms of voter contact is not at all dissimilar from that faced by the newspaper industry. Phone contact rates plummeted by 35% from 2008 to 2012, and change is coming to the TV/cable ecosystem much faster than people think (House of Cards, etc.) The merger of TV and the Internet is something we speculated about a decade ago, but seems like a safe bet today.
People typically discuss these things in terms of where the money is going to flow in the future, but there’s an even more significant power shift at play. Without TV as the 800 pound gorilla of campaigns, there’s the opportunity to create more diverse campaign structures where digital isn’t just integrated, but becomes the foundation for everything else. This is potentially more disruptive (and dare I say it, “leapfroggy” than what the Democrats have done). But it’s also a huge hypothetical until digital strategists on the Republican side start to truly embrace and then seize this leadership role, rather than thinking of themselves as Facebook ad hackers.
While running the campaign the Democrats ran in 2012 in 2016 is not an option, having the ability to do so (along with an understanding of how to avoid some its pitfalls) is a perfectly valid strategic choice for the next six months to a year. In an of itself, this would be a great improvement over where we are today. In fact, I would argue that this intermediate learning process is a necessary precursor to future innovation, and the Democrat aping of microtargeting with Catalist and then Ken Strasma’s dynamic models are proof of it. Sometimes, you can’t get to point D without first passing through points A, B, and C. You can’t leapfrog without an understanding of what you’re improving on.