Invest in grassroots now, or lose again
Right now, conservatives are wringing their hands, wondering how we overcome what is obviously a clear advantage of the Left and with the Democrats with regard to grassroots organizing and get out the vote.
Do you know why the Obama campaign was so convinced they were going to win?
Because they emphasized data and technology, and wait for it, good old-fashioned on-the-ground door-knocking. The best of both worlds, so to speak.
Sure, one of the biggest disadvantages we had was that Team Obama began organizing for 2012 within weeks of the 2008 elections. And there was no way we could have caught up in three months or even six months. Not when the other side, which is still better at grassroots organizing than us, has more than a three-year head start. Though it does beg the question of what Team Romney was not doing as they ran for president for six years in total. But that’s another story.
In the end, this election was only really lost by about 381,000 votes total. That’s right: out of the more than 126 million votes cast, it was really only about 0.003 percent of the actual sum that separated the two candidates. That was the difference between the vote totals in Ohio, Virginia, Florida, and Iowa combined, which, if they had gone to Romney, would have given him 272 Electoral College votes, and ultimately the White House.
For conservatives going forward, we actually have to commit ourselves to a permanent grassroots infrastructure and it must be a priority. Needless to say, right now it is not. Not even close. And any ongoing grassroots effort has to be funded.
Right now that is also not the case. I’d argue there was more than enough money to fund legitimate grassroots work six months before the election had there been a genuine desire to do so instead of simply paying lip service to the idea.
But let’s not fool ourselves: there is zero money to be made in grassroots. There are no commissions for consultants, and whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, on the right, money flows into where money is made: e.g., mail, TV, robo-calls, etc. Heck, even after the first $100 million or so was flushed on forgettable commercials that did little or nothing to alter the overall narrative, we still had the time and resources to change course.
This is important: it’s not enough just to pledge grassroots support and then “hurry up and do something.” It has to be the right kind of grassroots. Smart grassroots. Effective grassroots. Tactics with a goal. Techniques that actually move the needle. One national group claimed they distributed over 500,000 door hangers. This activity borders on worthless.
For the sake of the poor trees that gave their lives for the paper, please, people, actually take the time to hand a person the literature after you’ve had a conversation with them. If nothing else, stop littering the doorsteps of innocent voters. And I don’t even want to talk about robo-calls.
When an organization claims 12 million automated calls as somehow “reaching” voters, or the Romney campaign counts five robo-calls a day to the same voter for the last five days of the campaign as legitimate voter “touches,” we kid ourselves on what real voter contact looks like. Real voter contact isn’t passive. It can’t be mechanized. If done right, it changes outcomes.
Which leads us to this: unless the conservative grassroots is very much focused on live, in-person door-knocking, on having a conversation with a voter, and then not only giving information but also receiving information (thoughts, ideas, where the voter stands on the issues, what his or her priorities are, etc.), we will never succeed like the left at real grassroots.
Investment in databases, software
The Obama campaign also invested incredible amounts of time and significant money into databases and voter software technology. But let me make this point: unless you commit to live, personal touches with voters, you can have the world’s greatest technology and database and it won’t mean anything. If we on the Right commit to grassroots, we next have to commit to modern data and technology. And the most crucial part of all of this is the model: the model for any functioning database must be centered on an individual’s voting history; consumer data is secondary. Think of voter history as the cake, and consumer information as the frosting.
Finally, the data has to be useful in the real world. Where most on the Right have struggled is in taking what is useful data and actually having a “front end” interface or application that makes it deliverable in a practical, on-the-ground way for the grassroots user.
That’s one of the aspects of the technology that American Majority Action and the tech firm Political Gravity have delivered with their joint product, Gravity: not only super-solid data, but also a practical online system in which grassroots workers can punch in a precinct, put in “filters” (e.g., every female Republican who voted in 2010 primaries in the precinct), and then come up with a list of the voter files requested. From there, identified voting households can be put into the most efficient walk route on a volunteer’s iPad, tablet or smartphone.
Thus, while surveying the voter and having a conversation, answers to the volunteer’s questions can be uploaded and appended to the voter’s file in real time.
The time to start is now
Of course there’s much, much more to be done on the database and technology front. It’s the nature of the information age we live in. And it will take bodies and money. However, the time to commit to building out an effective grassroots, the right grassroots— one founded on data and tools—is now. So we start in 2013 and focus on the seven to nine key presidential and Senate battleground states. The 2014 mid-term congressional elections can be our dry run.
We don’t need to have a 50-state plan like Howard Dean’s 2004 Democratic National Committee “50-state strategy,” but we must focus on the handful of states that perennially decide the Presidential race. If we don’t want to lose the next war, we’ll focus on a living, breathing, muscular grassroots: laser-like in its focus, unrelenting in its turnout, and flexible in its targets. And the smart money and real leaders, for once, should arm it properly.
Ned Ryun is president and CEO of American Majority, a grassroots political training organization for conservative candidates and activists engaging at the state level, and American Majority Action. Their website is AmericanMajority.Org and AmericanMajorityAction.Org. Editors note: Political Gravity was one tech firm that earned praise for it’s performance during the campaign.