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The GOP Online

Hugh Hewitt has a post up at Townhall that comments on a Wall Street Journal piece bemoaning the GOP’s lack of prowess at online organizing. Both are amusing in that they have missed the target but hit the tree.

In 2004, I kept hearing that the Bush campaign’s online operation, and the GOP in general, was so far behind what Kerry, Dean, and the Democrats were doing that it was possible we would lose the election based solely on our Internet capability. This comment was repeated by many people. Among them was a widely respected internet consultant who is now giving wine tours of Italy or some such thing.

After the election, our online effort was awarded IPDI’s Golden Dot for the best national internet campaign and people spent a great deal of ink explaining how our “under the radar” operation was brilliant and powerful.

In other words, “We spent so much time telling people that the Democrats are winning, and then watched them get their ass handed to them, and had to come to terms with the fact that an online echo chamber is not necessarily a winning strategy.”

Even the examples they list from 2006 (Lieberman, Webb/Allen, Burns) are not about the Internet and any great or creative use for it.

Lieberman proved that a small piece of the Democrat party (let’s call it ‘the base’) can impact intra-party elections (let’s call them ‘primaries’), and ultimately have their voice trampled by the larger majority in a later election (let’s call them ‘general elections’). Wow! Those Internet activists are crafty! They have figured out a political system that existed for years before anyone owned a computer.

As for Allen and Burns, saying or doing stupid things in front of cameras is hardly news. Politicians do it every day. I’m amazed that half of Congress isn’t featured on YouTube for things that are twice as dumb as Allen’s and Burns’ mistakes. The fact that parties run empty suits simply because they have name ID or a good pedigree is not a surprise either. Neither the utterance of stupid comments nor the lack of gray matter would be of much consequence if the cameras weren’t rolling. There are more cameras now, but moving an offline story via the Internet still requires an offline story.

Al Gore has a reputation for saying and doing more dumb things on a daily basis than Dan Quayle was ever accused of. In 1996, I attended a rally in the South Valley of Albuquerque to heckle Gore. He had been told to come out and pander to the mostly Hispanic crowd by saying, “Muchos gracias,” as they applauded. Instead, he said, “Machismo Gracias”. Unfortunately, Gore was PYT (pre-YouTube) so he got a pass from the media that should have given him half the grief they gave Quayle.

Getting back to the article, Hugh’s first guess about the disparity in GOP versus the democrats was pretty close to the target.

Occupying the White House leaves certain political muscles undeveloped. The president gets all the attention he wants, even if it is unfavorable. It tends to make its inhabitants less hungry, or overconfident of their abilities to generate interest.

That’s sort of the problem, but not really. It has more to do with the GOP’s tactics as a result of what had been their majority status – not just the residency in the White House.

The GOP had begun to think, and largely still is thinking, like a mega-company. Large companies are obsessed with reputation and deathly afraid of doing anything that will damage that reputation. They move slowly, and awkwardly, because they constantly strive to avoid doing anything that might upset the apple cart.

The Democrats, as the minority, were willing to try new things. Think of them as the guerilla marketers. They would try off-beat or risky approaches to get attention. They knew they would trade some degree of seriousness to get seen. They were Burger King’s subservient chicken ad compared to the GOP’s McDonald’s. When was the last time McDonald’s did a risky campaign?

The second problem we have, as a party, is our tendency to take our cues from the national committees. We tend to look at things like ActBlue and ask, “why isn’t the RNC doing that?” That’s largely because the RNC has generally been a very effective institution. The Democrats, on the other hand, have looked at their party structure, their candidates, and their institutions and come to the conclusion the national committees are unable to find their ass with both hands and a flashlight.

I think that’s why the Democrats rallied behind Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy. The Democrats winning in 2006 had little to do with the 50-state strategy and more to do with Republicans defeating themselves – regardless of what the left blogosphere claims. If nothing else, though, at least Dean’s approach wasn’t a retread of past failed efforts.

The GOP sticks to the same playbook because it has usually been a winning playbook. Will it continue to be in 2008? I don’t know. Personally I believe we need to start engaging in the type of guerilla warfare and guerilla marketing that we’ll need if we’re going to overcome our minority status.

If we look at the 2006 elections as a fluke and assume we’ll be swept back in next year, and if we believe we can act like a majority and win, we’ll lose even more.

Written by Michael Turk