A Vast Left-Wing Competency
How Democrats became the party of effective campaigning—and why the GOP isn’t catching up anytime soon.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.
A polarizing incumbent wins a closely fought but decisive re-election despite mixed public opinion about his first term. His lead was steady and consistent throughout, and he was boosted on Election Day by strong turnout from core constituencies despite suggestions that his supporters could suffer from weakened enthusiasm the second time. The storyline was clear: The president won in large part because of superior tactics and improved technique.
In 2004, the incumbent who won that tactical victory was George W. Bush, and as Democrats learned more about his campaign’s successful application of first-generation “microtargeting” procedures, they began to see their opponent’s powers as more mundane than mystical. Five weeks after Bush’s re-election, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne diagnosed the Democrats as suffering from “Rove Envy” and described the longing the party had “for the strategic clarity and organizational acumen” Republicans showed in campaigns. Indeed Bush’s win had ratified what both sides recognized as a long-standing culture gap between the parties. Republicans were the party that was competent about politics, bringing the discipline of the corporate suite to the campaign war room. Democrats, who had resigned themselves to the reality of the Will Rogers quip about not being “an organized political party,” committed themselves to building a new infrastructure for innovation and collaboration among separate interest groups and rival consultants.
Tuesday night’s results testify to many dramatic changes, particularly demographic and ideological ones, that mark life in Obama’s America. But within the practice of politics, no shift seems more dramatic than the role reversal between the two parties on campaigning competence. Today, there is only one direction in which envy can and should be directed: Democrats have proved themselves better—more disciplined, rigorous, serious, and forward-looking—at nearly every aspect of the project of winning elections.
After losing even more dramatically in 2008, Republicans acknowledged that Obama’s campaign was tactically superior and technically more advanced than John McCain’s, and the party’s operatives leafed through David Plouffe’s memoir, The Audacity to Win, for clues on what the Democrats did right. (Spoiler alert: The book revealed almost nothing about the mechanics of an Obama campaign.) But that curiosity never translated into serious self-examination.
The Republican political class could look at so much else working in Obama’s favor—that candidate’s unique appeal, a broad distaste for Bush, voter anxieties about economic crisis, strategic inconsistencies in McCain’s approach—that few undertook the same self-examination that the electioneering left did in the wake of 2004. But in 2012, a seemingly vulnerable incumbent president’s solid victory will be attributed to tactics, and the other side will surely hustle to catch up. But the innovation terrain in politics has changed over the last eight years, and it will be a lot harder for Republicans to return to parity with their opponents.
“It is a rude awakening,” says Blaise Hazelwood, who served as political director of the Republican National Committee during Bush’s re-election and worked this year as part of Mitt Romney’s targeting team. “There was a false sense of security, a sense that we figured out how to do this microtargeting—we’d figured it out how do to it pretty well—and now there are other things for the party to focus on.”
It is no coincidence that in both 2004 and 2012 the engines of radical innovation were the campaigns of incumbent presidents. We tend to underappreciate how radically different a presidential re-election is from any other enterprise in American political life. It is the rare chance for candidates to disrupt the cycle of short-term, election-year priorities and invest in their own research agendas instead of being forced to follow a consultant-driven marketplace.
For Bush, this proved a unique opportunity to synthesize information from consumer-data warehouses with voter registration records and apply some of the same statistical modeling techniques that companies used to segment customers so that they could market to them individually. In Obama’s case, the continuity provided by a re-election campaign encouraged a far broader set of research priorities, perhaps most important the adoption of randomized-control experiments, used in the social sciences to address elusive questions about voter behavior.
Sasha Issenberg is the author of The Victory Lab about the new science of political campaigns.