Technology Gap

Just how far has the GOP fallen behind the Democrats in terms of technology? Well, they sent a telegram.

Just how far has the GOP fallen behind the Democrats in terms of technology? Well, they sent a telegram. Avlon is the author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America.

There are many ways to measure how screwed Republicans are after the last election.

You can look at the avalanche of swing states that broke big for Barack. You can look at the demographic shifts that left McCain-Palin with decisive wins only among voters over age 60 and towns with populations under 50,000. Or you can look at my emergency telegram from John McCain.

For the uninitiated—and that would be anyone under 60—telegrams were the instant-message of the horse and buggy era, the Internet boom of the 1850s.

Telegrams don’t exist any more. Western Union sent its last telegram without much fanfare in 2006, after modern technology (beginning with the telephone) left it nothing more than a sentimental novelty.

But nostalgia is apparently alive and well at the RNC. They’ve been sending these same fundraising letters since at least the 1970s, when a portion of the population could still equate “telegram” with “urgent.”

How quickly the Republicans recognize their need to modernize will depend on how much they like losing. It’s not an impossible task to catch the Democrats, but it will require a cultural revolution inside the GOP.

Because, like generals fighting the last war (or campaigns re-running culture war scripts that riff on late-1960s divides), the right-wing direct mail “gurus” who profit from every GOP campaign didn’t feel it necessary to update their templates for the third presidential campaign of the 21st century. Or, arguably worse, they were actually aiming for the very, very old among us.

Either way, it illustrates a comment made to me by a top GOP strategist during the campaign: “Our voters don’t use the Internet.”

No doubt this was a well-researched fact. But accepting it is also the kiss of death, because it becomes justification for inaction. It’s an acceptance that the GOP has become that party that pridefully plays to the low tech, an inevitably declining slice of the demographic pie. They have become the “Party of Memory” that Emerson wrote about in the early days of our democracy, versus “the Party of Hope” as re-branded by Obama.

The Obama campaign’s pioneering use of new technology is already well-established legend. It hired one of the founders of Facebook to connect to a new generation, revolutionized grassroots fundraising, pulled unprecedented Get-Out-the-Vote efforts, and, with an army of 10 million registered supporters, is about to introduce Presidency 2.0 to the American people.

“While McCain was trying to scare the Abe Simpson vote, the Obama campaign had a mobile and online network that efficiently converted interested supporters into active volunteers,” says Jed Alpert, CEO of Mobile Commons, a leading mobile application provider for politics, advocacy, and cause-related marketing as well as commercial clients. “For example, some friends and I put together a group of 125 people that went to the Cleveland area for the last five days to work on GOTV. All of this activity had the effect of creating a huge and connected community that have a substantial time, money, and intellectual investment in Obama's success and can be communicated with directly by the new administration.”

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For everything the Obama campaign did right with technology, the Republicans did something wrong or not at all.

During the campaign, a top GOP strategist told me: “Our voters don’t use the Internet.”

Remember the famous stories about the Obama campaign soliciting cell-phone numbers from crowds at the Denver convention, projecting supporters’ names and messages onto screens over Mile-High Stadium? There are two Democratic companies that specialize in campaign text messaging that can be used for candidate updates, community building, and GOTV. There are no major Republican companies that specialize in cell-phone outreach.

Democrats’ had an Obama iPhone application that placed a full campaign inside supporters’ cell-phones, organizing outreach state by state, allowing users to find policy positions and get email updates as well as connect with swing state friends on election day. The McCain campaign did not offer iPhone interface, but a harshly funny parody was circulated in its place. It’s a bad day when pranksters outflank the official campaign apparatus with tech investment.

But the most objective measure of the technology gap can be seen in the effectiveness of their online outreach. Obama had 3.1 million Facebook supporters, compared to 600,000 for McCain. Obama had 950,000 MySpace friends compared to 220,000 for McCain. Obama had 113 million YouTube views compared to 25 million for McCain. And when it came to meetup.com—a site famously used by Dean supporters in 2004—McCain got outhustled not only by Obama but also Bob Barr.

McCain ran a 20th century GOTV campaign—phone calls and mailings to supporters were the key metric. According to filings on opensecrets.org, the McCain campaign spent $18 million in postage and shipping costs, and $3 million on the internet. By comparison, Obama spent $15 million in postage and shipping costs and $14 million on the internet.

The technology gap not only highlighted the age gap between one of the youngest nominees in history and the oldest—it demonstrated how desperately the Republican Party needs to modernize its outreach and its outlook if it wants to regain relevance.

Ironically, McCain’s 2000 campaign, as run by Mike Murphy, was the most Internet-savvy of its day. This mantle was seized by Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign and the Democrats never gave it back. A latent Luddite instinct inside the RNC, combined with Sarah Palin’s base-pleasing paeans to the “real Americans” who live in small towns, make modernity itself look suspiciously liberal-leaning to many in the GOP establishment.

But there are a group of younger Republicans like blogger Patrick Ruffini who understand the urgent need to close the technology gap and put forward a plan at rebuildtheparty.com, including the recruitment of 5 million new online activists, minimum targets for internet fundraising, and an “open technology ecosystem.” “Winning the technology war with the Democrats must be the RNC's number one priority in the next four years,” Ruffini writes.

“The next generation of RNC leaders need to embrace the Internet, not find reasons to ignore it,” says Matthew Zablud, partner at Adfero Group, a DC-based public affairs specializing in integrated communications. “This will take not only investment but also reorganization, such as removing the silos between the e-campaign and other departments like political, communications and fundraising. It will require using social networking and online grassroots organizing techniques and technologies to keep supporters connected and engaged.”

It all comes down to one of the basic rules of modern life: make change your ally, not your enemy. But if the GOP stubbornly insists that conservative means resistance to change—especially technological evolution—it will quickly find itself going the way of the telegraph.

John P. Avlon is the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics.