Can Republicans Meet the Needs of the Empowered Electorate?

Much criticism has been launched recently at the Republican leadership over its disinterest in embracing the modern era of digital campaigning. This criticism has come largely from the right itself, as the younger generations of the Party, as well as some established members, push against a losing strategy that underutilizes social media and which has gained them little political ground over the last decade.

Social media has removed many of the barriers of engagement that once existed between politicians and the broader public, empowering the electorate. A 97 page report commissioned to look into the recent failings of the Republican Party by Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus found that “We are in an era where power is not centralized in the parties,” -  however, they attribute this completely to campaign reform without mentioning social media’s role in the breaking up of political power monopolies - and even finding that “A lot of centralized authority in the hands of a few people at [super PACs] is dangerous for our Party.” The report not only highlights the recent dissolution of centralized political power, but also the need for Party leaders to embrace it in order to broaden the Party ideology. Rather than drawing hard lines in the sand on social issues, the report argues that the Party needs to be willing to agree to disagree, and lean more towards inclusion than exclusion.

In large part, it has been the social media phenomenon that has pushed politics in this direction. Today, it is not enough to have a political ideology; you need to be able to explain it, and do so using social media tools that reach hundreds of millions of people in an instant. Those who are unready to provide instant communication that at least appears to be honest and transparent are no longer relevant in the modern political landscape.

The 2012 Presidential campaign highlighted the Republican Party’s profound lack of readiness. In February, the New York Times Magazine ran an article titled “Can the Republicans Be Saved From Obsolescence?” To poke fun at the luddism that pervades the Party, it compare the GOP’s laptop to a typewriter, its hard drive to a filing cabinet, and its Twitter to a megaphone. The article quoted a senior Romney official saying that Stuart Stevens, Romney’s senior strategist, “was very categorical about not wanting to [use Twitter] and not thinking it was worth it.” Of course, this worthless digital medium turned out to be political gold, and the Democrats were able to capitalize.According to data gathered by Advertising Age and the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, by August 2012, Obama had 18.5 million Twitter followers and Romney had 850,000. Romney did better on Facebook, with 4.1 million followers, but compared to Obama’s 27.1 million, it doesn’t look that good. The numbers look like this throughout the social media world. On Google Plus, Romney had 882,000 followers and Obama had 1.94 million. On Instagram, Romney had 28 thousand followers, compared to Obama’s 1.2 million.

(Data from Advertising Age and the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, August 21, 2012. Obama and Romney photos part of the public domain). 

The bad news for the GOP has been the Democrats’ ability to adjust quickly to change. But the good news for the Republicans is that, with the amount of money and brainpower focused on politics, once they are ready to make the adjustment, the playing field can be leveled very quickly. There are teams of young, enthusiastic, and well-funded Conservatives who are chomping at the bit to build and execute advanced social media campaigns, and who are just waiting for the green light from the Republican leadership. Companies like Red Edge and The Winston Group employ many of these young Republicans who know the importance of social media in political outreach and are eager to employ their skills and knowledge to bring the Republican Party into the twenty-first century. Thankfully for them, the loss of the 2012 Presidential election seems to have inspired the Republican leadership to make the necessary changes in order to build their own robust digital campaign infrastructure.

Reince Preibus, the Chair of the Republican National Committee, recently announced the Party's new campaign strategy: a renewed dedication to person-to-person engagement, with an emphasis on social and mobile media. He believes this is the best way to fix the GOP’s main problems, which he describes as a weak message, an insufficient ground game, and an air of exclusivity.

It wasn’t too long ago that the Democrats were trying to catch up to the Republican’s impressive digital marketing strategies. In 1996, Rupert Murdoch launched the Fox News Channel, and it quickly became clear that the Republican Party was way ahead of the Democratic Party when it came to digitally promoting their party’s brand. The Democrats had to adjust. MSNBC, the liberal response to Fox News, now beats Fox News when it comes to partisan reporting, according to a recent Pew report. And it won’t take long for the Republican Party to match the digital campaign genius of the Democrats. After all, they have no choice. As the New York Times Magazine article quoted one House Republican senior staff member as saying, Stuart Stevens will probably go down in history “as the last guy to run a presidential campaign who never tweeted.”


Camille Koué is pursuing her master’s degree in Communication, Culture & Technology at Georgetown University. She is focused on the intersection of technology, infrastructure and design and the effects these domains have on human relations, civic engagement and community development. A native of Oakland, Calif., she graduated from American University with degrees in Visual Media, Justice and Spanish Language.