It was supposed to be the answer to a party in crisis.
After the Republican Party’s shellacking by President Barack Obama’s digital army in 2008, a group of influential young consultants preached a new doctrine of GOP politics aimed at organizing and expanding their numbers through the Internet — a transformation that would help draw a whole new generation into the party fold.
Republicans now have the iPhone apps, rapid-response tweets, Facebook likes and microtargeting that put them on par with Democrats. But the digitally fueled push to capture new voters is also a reminder of how much ground the GOP still needs to make up in attracting younger and more diverse supporters.
As social media and digital tools have become increasingly mainstream and no longer the domain of the young and the hip, the early stages of GOP’s digital revolution have tended to do more to revive its traditional base of support among older, white voters than expand and diversify the party on a grass-roots level.
Republican strategist David All, for instance, had imagined that tech-savvy, young “Netflix Republicans” would flock to a revived GOP that had created a new community and a bigger party tent through the Internet.
Another GOP strategist, Mindy Finn, similarly described the digital push as part of a bigger transformation. “The Republican Party cannot reboot if it’s viewed only as a party of old, crusty white guys,” she told The Washington Post in November 2008 as she was launching a new digital platform to “Rebuild the Party.”
Youthful enthusiasm has fallen off for Obama since 2008, but that doesn’t mean that young people are flocking to Republican nominee Mitt Romney. Among eligible voters younger than 30, an October poll from the Harvard Institute of Politics found that approval of Romney is at 36 percent, compared with 55 percent for Obama. Romney’s rating is only a few points above John McCain’s performance with the same age group. McCain had 32 percent approval; Obama had 66 percent.
Romney has also failed to make inroads with minorities, drawing a full 91 percent of his vote from white voters, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News tracking poll. That poll showed that the racial gap between the parties has grown bigger than in 2008.
That isn’t what some of the GOP’s earliest digital gurus had anticipated. “I thought if I armed everyone with the right tools and taught everyone how to use them, ultimately, the end result would be change. That’s not what happened,” says All, 33.
The GOP’s new digital prowess could still help the party prevail Tuesday as the Romney campaign makes its last-minute push to generate enthusiasm and get out the vote. But that victory may be despite the country’s changing demographics, not because of them.
Finn and All were among the young Republican consultants who have spent much of the past decade urging their own party to catch up. Finn helped found the first new-media department at the Republican National Committee in 2005, working together with eCampaign Director Patrick Ruffini. All led the push on Capitol Hill, helping then-Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., start the first congressional blog in 2005 and launching a conservative equivalent to ActBlue, a progressive PAC, in 2007.
But it wasn’t until Obama’s victory – powered by online fundraising and block-by-block, Web-fueled organizing – that Republican officials finally started taking their warnings to heart.
The GOP’s young digital set also saw a chance for something bigger to happen. It wasn’t just the Internet that had delivered the White House to Obama, but a broad coalition of voters who were wired into the campaign. To compete, Republicans would have to accomplish the same.
Less than three days after Obama’s victory, a group of under-40 Republican operatives led by Ruffini and Finn penned a manifesto for the party to make the Internet “our 1 priority in the next four years,” all while overcoming the Democrats’ “more than 2-to-1 advantage with young voters.” More than 10,000 online activists agreed.
The right’s new digital momentum would hand Republicans a big victory in January 2010, when an unexpected surge of grassroots support propelled Scott Brown, R-Mass., into the Senate. His campaign for the special election after the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy raised more than $12 million online in just a few weeks, which Ruffini’s firm helped process. “That was the tipping point,” he said.
Such successes were powered, in good part, because of the rising tea party movement, whose members used social networks and Internet coalitions to rally, raise funds and spread the word. “I credit the tea party with snapping the Republican Party into understanding the power of social media,” said Kristen Soltis, a GOP communications adviser to Crossroads Generation, which is affiliated with Karl Rove’s American Crossroads super PAC.
Republicans finally had a digital revolution that led to results, with a Web-savvy tea party that helped them retake the House in 2010. But it was one powered by activists who were more likely to be older, whiter and more conservative than the rest of population, according to one widely circulated CNN study.
The party’s shift rightward also may be keeping the GOP from attracting as many young and minority supporters. “Millennials, at least so far, hold ‘baked-in’ support for a more activist government,” the Pew Research Center concluded in a 2011 report. Among voters younger than 30, “you see far more moderation regarding social issues, specifically around immigration, same-sex,” said John Della Volpe, polling director at the Harvard Institute of Politics. The Republicans’ rightward shift on immigration may also be dampening their support among Hispanics, who are overwhelmingly supporting Obama.
Digital strategists across the political spectrum agree that new technology won’t make a difference if the message doesn’t resonate.
Hispanics are heavy users of mobile technology, “so doing more on the mobile front should enable you to make more inroads with Hispanics,” said Liz Mair, a former online communications director for the RNC. “But it’s just a fact that there are Hispanics out there who frankly feel that the Republican Party hates them.”