article

02.19.09

Why Republicans Don't Get the Internet

The Daily Beast’s Meghan McCain talks to Republicans about the party’s crippling technology disconnect—and the new conservative Web zealots who can save the GOP.

When I first suggested launching a blog chronicling my experience on my father's campaign for president, I was met with confusion and resistance. A few people even asked me what's a blog. Throughout the campaign, I did everything possible to showcase the fun and interesting parts of the campaign. I posted pictures. I wrote posts. I even included a playlist of my favorite songs. But often, I got the sense that people on the campaign thought I was wasting my time.

But denial only amplifies the stereotypes about Republicans being disconnected from the problems residing within the party.

The Republican party isn't exactly Internet savvy. That's no secret. This has been a source of personal frustration for me for a very long time. Unless the GOP evolves as the party that can successfully utilize the Web, we'll continue to lose influence. I think nothing confirms this fact to be more true than this recent election. I don’t claim to be an expert on mobilizing voters, but a significant number of the readers on mccainblogette.com, my blog, were between the ages of 18 and 30, a key demographic that either party would want. Many of the established Republican strategists told me that young people would not visit my web site. I used to categorize many of the advisors in my father's campaign into one of two groups: those that "respected" the Internet and those who didn't. It was a running line between me and my friends who worked on my site.

I remember explaining this to former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman (who was also an advisor to my father), and having him share his concerns about my father's campaign effectively using the Internet. It's often suggested that because the GOP was in power the past eight years, it became lazy and content with its success. So the party did not see the need to utilize the web as the Democrats did.

I wanted to ask some of the people who have been doing online work for the Republican party if they could somehow explain—or even admit—what has gone so wrong. But when I started calling around asking for people to comment, I discovered most did not want to talk to me. Instead, they told me that not having enough money was a huge factor in our loss—not our misuse of the Internet. Others were just plain angry, blaming the liberal media, and not the party's shortcomings online. Of course, there is truth in some of this. But denial only amplifies the stereotypes about Republicans being disconnected.

Two people who were happy to talk to be me were Becki Donatelli, founder of Campaign Solutions and Rob Kubasko, a Republican online strategist and designer who has been working in the field for almost fifteen years. (Rob helped me with the mccainblogette.com when it first launched before going on to try and fix some of the branding issues my father's campaign had in its final months.) He sees a major gap between Republican strategists and the web designers working for the party.

"I've always been an anomaly in this business, for a lot of reasons," he says. "I only became a Republican in December after being a lifelong independent. I think the problem is that we just haven't been able to get many Republicans to obliterate the box they've been working in for years. But we have to understand what drives success. In some ways we continue to put the cart before the horse. Technology does not drive success. Message (especially a well crafted one) drives success."

Take Twitter, for example. "So many Republicans now want to get on Twitter because they know it's 'cool,'" Rob continues. "But few are taking the time to really think about what they should use it for. When that happens, you get far too many 'I'm sitting on the tarmac waiting for my plane to take off' tweets. That's when you just further become part of the joke and not the solution."

Still, as Becki Donatelli points out, there are plenty of misconceptions about GOP web usage. "Let me begin with specific numbers," she told me. "The McCain campaign raised over $100 million online in 2008. That's unheard of for a Republican candidate. Ever. Not only is it unprecedented, the Internet accounted for one third of all dollars raised in the primary and one quarter of everything for the general. Obviously, we lost the election and we were outspent and outraised by extraordinary numbers. But that has little, if anything, to do with our 'lack of understanding the Internet.'"

We live in an era where most individuals my age get their political news from The Daily Show and SNL's Weekend Update. I know this aggravates the old school political operatives to no end, but it's true. The Obama administration understands that my generation spends most of its day on a laptop or a BlackBerry, and that using the web is easy way to communicate their ideas to their constituents. Making a website, Facebook group, or YouTube video entertaining and enticing is where grassroots campaigning begins. President Obama currently has around five-and-a-half million supporters on Facebook; my father has around five-hundred thousand.

Grassroots organizing and generating a cult-like momentum online isn't unique to the Democratic party, either. During the primaries I remember thinking that Ron Paul's organization was mind-blowing, and that his ideas as a candidate had obviously tapped into some movement on the Internet which drew even more people to his campaign. He is most noted for his online fundraising, at one point raising $4.2 million in one day. Anyone who went to any of the early primary debates can remember how many Ron Paul supporters showed up and how aggressive they were about their support for their candidate being heard.

Perhaps the problem isn't that one party is more adept at using the Internet, but how each executes the online tools they have. "I don't buy the argument that Democrats are more naturally 'grass rootsy' and therefore use the Internet better," Steve Grove, YouTube's head of news and politics, wrote me in an email. "Online tools are political tools like any other, and I think you're already seeing the GOP step it up through efforts like ' Rebuild the Party' and the RNC's weekly YouTube responses to President Obama, which demonstrate their passion to get back in the game."

To be fair, there are some Republican websites that appeal to young people—they are not as well-publicized as some of the Democratic ones, but they do exist. I've bookmarked Andrew Breitbart Presents Big Hollywood, which focuses on conservative relationships with people in Hollywood (or lack thereof). The site proves that not all of the entertainment industry completely leans left and the contributors on the site are informative, entertaining, and not the normal "political pundits" you would find on a typical Republican site. It is also just plain entertaining. I've also been reading Conservative Punk for quite a while, which I like because it is not shoving one agenda down your throat. Instead, it considers itself a place to let young people make decisions on their own. The posts range from YouTube videos and humorous political cartoons to traditional articles.

But more often than not Republican sites fall short. Although Rebuild the Party is an interesting attempt to reestablish the party's image-and communicating the reasons why one should join-using the Internet, the website is about as provocative as a blue suit, white shirt, and red tie. At the time that I write this, the video on the homepage features various individuals, most of them I would guess between the ages of fifty and sixty, explaining why they consider themselves Republicans. Had I still been an independent, there is nothing about this website or video that would sway me as a twenty-four year old woman to join the GOP. (I was an Independent until I registered as a Republican for Father's Day last May.)

Until the Republican party joins the twenty-first century and learns how to use the Internet, its members will keep getting older and the youth of America will just keep logging on to the other side.

Meghan McCain is from Phoenix. She graduated from Columbia University in 2007. She previously wrote for Newsweek magazine and created the website mccainblogette.com.