Thursday, January 31, 2013

Is Winning the Argument Enough?

by Peter Wilson

I attended the National Review Institute conference in Washington this weekend and came home rejuvenated and satiated by an abundant intellectual feast -- 16 hours of speeches and panel discussions on Saturday alone, with one 45 minute break for cocktails. The All Star cast included Paul Ryan, Bobby Jindal, Ted Cruz, Jim DeMint, Scott Walker, Tom Cotton, Bob McDonnell, Peter Thiel, Grover Norquist, Andy McCarthy, Mark Steyn, Charles Krauthammer, Michael Barone, Larry Kudlow, and on and on. A conservative Woodstock. 

As Republicans sift through the post-election wreckage, two camps have emerged: the
"winning the argument" conservative intellectuals and get-out-the-vote (GOTV) operatives. Both strategies of course are necessary, so it's a question of emphasis, not exclusion, but it was clear that a majority of the speakers at the conference emphasized messaging over GOTV tactics. Margaret Thatcher was quoted several times: "First win the argument, then win the election," and a majority of speakers addressed the question of how to win the votes of people who ought to be Republicans, but haven't yet seen the light. Arthur Brooks spoke eloquently about the morality of free markets. Artur Davis gave a tour de force about families at their "Sunday supper" tables, worried about their economic futures and fearful of taking their chances without government help. Hugh Hewitt spoke less convincingly about winning Hispanic votes by passing an immigration bill granting "normalization" to illegal immigrants (which may happen sooner than we thought). Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, numerous others, spoke about communicating our message and variations on the theme of "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care."

On two occasions during the conference, however, someone mentioned a PDF called "Inside the Cave: An In-Depth Look at the Digital, Technology, and Analytics Operations of Obama for America."

As an aside, I mentioned this to a liberal friend and she said, is that title racist? Why? I asked, utterly confused. "Because he's a black man," she responded. So I guess "cave" is another new racist codeword.

"Inside the Cave" was not released by Republican racists but by Engage DC, a "well respected new media consulting firm." It's a scary and depressing document, which opens with a photo of a windowless office described with this caption: "The Cave in Obama for America's Chicago headquarters housed the campaign's Analytics team. Behind closed doors, more than 50 data analysts used Big Data to predict the individual behavior of tens of millions of American voters." These analysts are brilliant, young, and were willing to leave top firms to work for peanuts to re-elect Obama: "[Obama] went directly to Silicon Valley and to data analysts in the Fortune 500 and academia. One used to work at Pixar. Another was a high-energy particle physicist."

Romney spent millions on television ads, robocalls and the disastrous Orca, a "traditional corporate IT project gone bad," while Obama for America microtargeted voters through Facebook (34 million friends), Twitter, email (16 million on their email list compared to Romney's 2-3 million). OFA constantly tested new strategies -- "drunk donating," a "Quick Donate" app that processed donations through Amazon, and "upselling" donations (would you like to supersize that order?)
The report lists the following "Tools Built by the Technology Division":

• Narwhal: Synchronized data from multiple sources to build complete profiles of supporters
• Dashboard: Enabled supporters to connect with supporters near them and take action from home
• Call Tool: Allowed supporters in nonbattleground states to use their home phones to call voters in battleground states
• Stork: Transferred data from vendors to databases for querying

End result: Despite Obama's indefensible record, Republicans got creamed.

As I sat in the Omni Shoreham ballroom, I was also thinking about two events from last fall's campaign:

One cold morning in October I found myself behind enemy lines, holding a Scott Brown sign on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge. Five other volunteers from the Cambridge Republican City Committee were positioned around the intersection when a handful of people with Elizabeth Warren signs showed up. Then another handful. Then a wave of a hundred people washed over us, bearing gigantic campaign signs that they hoisted in front of our signs, blocking them from passing traffic. It turned out that Professor Warren had scheduled a press conference and had emptied her nearby call center.Most of the call center workers smoked cigarettes and were missing teeth. The class contrast with the Harvard Law faculty organizers was striking.

Secondly, on Election Day, according to a friend who worked at the polls, Elizabeth Warren's team emptied the SRO rooms at the Cambridge YMCA and sent them to vote across the street, with perhaps a pack of cigarettes or a five-dollar bill in their pockets. Another wave inundated Scott Brown's chances.

This is what we're facing. Brilliant and creepy data analysis, a Chicago-machine GOTV ground game, a president unabashed in his demagoguery and a corrupt, biased media.

The weekend's optimism and positive message was entirely thrilling. It's appropriate for a gathering of conservatives to take the high road and talk about big ideas. It's uplifting to hear brilliant people speak in passionate paragraphs -- without a single "um" or "ah" -- about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, arguing that American free market democracy has lifted more people out of poverty than any system in history. Arthur Brooks and Artur Davis moved me to tears.

Sixteen hours of dynamic microtargeting strategies, in contrast, would be a punishment I wouldn't wish on my enemies.

But when we look ahead, I'm not sure that winning the argument is enough. The Tea Party showed the power of our founding principles, but ultimately it wasn't enough on Election Day. Can we reach those workers getting paid minimum wage by Elizabeth Warren with arguments about fiscal responsibility? Can we fight donation-upselling by quoting the Constitution to young people who have been indoctrinated their whole lives and believe that the Founders were evil slaveowners? I don't think so, but it makes me mad. I'd love nothing more than to win elections by convincing voters that the ideas I heard this weekend are true and just, but I'm afraid the battle is going to be much harder, more boring, more calculated and more soulless.

The 2014 campaign for the House is already underway. We'd better get our Cave up and running. 

Peter Wilson


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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