The Republican party of 2012 found itself lacking a relevant issue agenda, modern media strategy, and state of the art party organization. Right-leaning policy intellectuals have made some progress on the first problem. Whether it is Michael Strain on employment, James Capretta on health care coverage, Robert Stein on taxes or Scott Winship on economic mobility, Republican candidates have a series of approaches they can select from in order to address the concerns of families who are middle-class or aspire to join the middle-class. The right seems stuck in the area of political strategy.
The media consultant class is lazy and endlessly reenacting past successes. The Republican party’s professional operatives overlap with the interests and sensibilities of the Washington lobbyist complex. Former Mississippi governor and legendary lobbyist Haley Barbour headed Mark Zuckerberg’s “conservative” front group supporting immigration policies that included amnesty, risible enforcement and expanded low-skill immigration (Zuckerberg also had a “liberal” front group supporting the same policies). Meanwhile, Haley Barbour’s lobbyist nephew Henry was one of the author’s of the Republican National Committee’s “autopsy” that, while admitting that the Republican National Committee was not a policy body, called on the party to embrace “comprehensive immigration reform”. The autopsy’s discussion of public opinion on immigration policy was notably less detailed and nuanced than in the College Republican report on the opinions of young voters. The party’s Washington operatives and business industry lobbyists decided, despite ambivalent polling, that embracing “comprehensive immigration reform” (a euphemism for a bundle of policies that usually include amnesty, delayed or nonexistent immigration enforcement, and increased low-skill immigration) was what the Republican party needed to embrace in order to remain competitive.
The truth is that, as Adam B. Schaeffer and Nancy Smith wrote, we don’t know what works with the contemporary electorate. The Republican media consultants who have emerged within the last thirty years know what used to work. The Republican lobbyist complex knows what they would like to work. The consultants and the lobbyist class have some shared sensibilities. Schaeffer and Smith might have found evidence that focusing on the abortion extremism of select Democrats might be the most efficient ways to win over persuadables, but consultant Mike Murphy probably spoke for a large segment of the consultant and lobbyist classes when he argued that Republicans should ditch social conservatives and embrace the lobbyist complex’s immigration policies. Murphy does not explain how the Republican party would make up for losing those voters who prioritize social conservatism and oppose expanded low-skill immigration. While they talk about being “pragmatists”, the consultant and lobbyist classes are just as driven by “gut instinct and guru-ism” as the Tea Party insurgents they fear and disdain.
And that is okay. The Republican consultants and lobbyists are as entitled to their opinions and priorities as anybody else. The problem is when the organizations of the institutional Republican party are converted into vehicles for the opinions and policy priorities of the consultant and lobbyist classes. Grassroots Republicans know the party elites are giving them spin rather than solid political information. Despite Zuckerberg’s (and Haley Barbour’s) “Americans for A Conservative Direction” group and the Republican National Committee’s embrace of amnesty, most grassroots conservatives did not embrace the Gang of Eight immigration proposal. An institutional Republican party that is overwhelmingly outgunned by the Democrats in the size and sophistication of field organization is in no position to tell the party’s grassroots what to believe.
The institutional Republican party should follow the example of Bill Brock in his 1977-1981 chairmanship of the Republican National Committee. The Republican party of the late-1970s was more ideologically diverse than the one we have now. The Republican National Committee did not concern itself with whether the party’s voters nominated conservative like Ronald Reagan, liberals like Lowell Weicker or opportunists like Arlen Specter. Brock focused on using information technology to build first-rate fundraising, voter-targeting, and opinion polling operations.
The institutional Republican party should follow Brock’s example and focus on making long-term investments. They should conduct in-depth opinion polling to give a nuanced understanding of the values and policy priorities of various subgroups of the population. We also need research on how to reach people who get their information from streaming media and mobile devices and whose social networks do not include many conservative activists. The institutional party should follow the advice of Schaeffer and Smith, and run randomized experiments on what messages work best on different segments of the population. Finally, the institutional Republican party needs to catch up to the Democrats in the size and sophistication of their field organizations.
The Republican National Committee and its affiliates don’t need to tell Republican candidates what to believe. Leave that to the candidates, policy experts and (not least) the nominating electorate. The institutional Republican party should instead focus on giving candidates the tools to understand public opinion, a set of best practices for using the media to reach persuadable voters and state of the art party organizations. An institutional Republican party that provided those services and did not get mixed up with intra-party policy disputes might get (and would certainly deserve) more respect from the grassroots.