“When someone rolls their eyes at us, they are not likely to open their ears to us.”
—The Growth And Opportunity Project Report, Republican National Committee, 2013
Stodgy old campaign operatives use a lot of terms that grate on the ears of the casual reader; “coffers,” “gadfly,” or “disincentivize” are perfect examples of signifiers that you’re reading the work of somebody who is so submerged in the political culture that they have trouble speaking plain English. The apocryphal “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result” definition is another.
Incidentally, that quote opens the Republican National Committee’s one-year assessment of its Growth And Opportunity Project Report.
The Republican National Committee brought together a select five members in 2013 to take a thorough and unsparing look at how and why the GOP, unstoppable in off-year elections like 2010 and 2014, bungled the 2012 presidential election. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus was realistic in his assessment of the race after Republicans lost everything from the presidency down to a Maine state Senate seat most notable for the Democratic candidate’s World of Warcraft character.
(At least part of this shock must have stemmed from the axiomatic Republican belief that Obama is The Worst President Ever—a worldview, it’s worth mentioning, the majority of the country did not necessarily share, if you hover around the late October/early November 2012 portion of Gallup’s approval rating chart.)
Publicly, the party was honest about its poor performance. Three years ago this month, Priebus told The Hill that he’d “reached a boiling point” and that he was determined to fix the party’s standing with minority voters.
“This is no different than a patient going to see a doctor,” said Sean Spicer, the RNC’s spokesman at the time. “Your number one thing is to say, ‘I’m not feeling well. Tell me what the problem is. Run some tests on me.’”
Out came the stethoscope. The Growth and Opportunity Project interviewed 52,000 people — more than the entire population of Galveston, TX or Benton Harbor, MI. They conducted conference calls, group listening sessions, interviewed pollsters, campaign staff, regular schmoes and seemingly everybody in-between.
To win in 2016, the report’s co-authors identified three areas of concern: Sending a more inclusive message to women and minorities, modernizing the party’s technology to improve its ground game, and changing the Republican nominating process to strengthen the eventual nominee. (The whole 100-page thing is available here.)
There was, indeed, a great disturbance in the pundit class. Some crowed about how out-of-touch the party seemed. Uber-conservative Erick Erickson claimed it brought little new to the discussion. For her own part, party co-chair Sharon Day said she stood by it when I spoke to her right after its release.
It is now 2016. The path of the GOP frontrunner for the nominating contest has been paved with an unbroken string of shocking insults, from the campaign announcement that accused Mexicans of being rapists to untrue claims of American Muslims celebrating 9/11 and likely others between when I finish composing this article and when it is posted. The nominating process began with nearly 20 candidates, and in the process of narrowing down to four or five this past week, it has produced a shaky three-front war between two candidates the party leadership openly despises and an establishment pick who has won just a single state.
Late night hosts no longer even need to reach to make dick jokes about the Republican debates.
Establishment stalwarts like the National Review, David Brooks and now Mitt Romney rage against Donald Trump’s candidacy, and it has so far done nothing to visibly slow his inexorable advance. Yet if he wins, it seems it will be just barely: As I write this, he has yet to break 50 percent in any of the contests so far. Party leaders believe his nomination will seal the party’s doom against either of the prospective Democratic nominees and even now rally desperately against him.
So what the hell happened?
Henry Barbour, an active member of the GOP in Mississippi and nephew of Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, was one of the five co-authors of the original report. Joining him were party heavies like Sally Bradshaw (who you’ll recognize as Jeb Bush’s campaign manager this go-round) and Ari Fleischer, the former White House chief of staff under George W. Bush.
“I think the RNC has taken a lot of our recommendations, particularly on the mechanical side of politics: Data, digital, how to deliver the message and turn out voters,” Barbour told me in a phone conversation the week of Super Tuesday. “The RNC’s done an incredibly good job of investing the money and raising the money to improve in all those areas. That part doesn’t get a lot of attention.”
Ada Fisher, a Republican National Committeewoman in North Carolina, agreed that one weakness in 2012 was certainly an asymmetrical ground game, and she feels it’s been addressed.
“In 2012, we still hadn’t kicked up our technology in the Republican Party,” she said. “In 2008, every state chairman and every county chairman who was a Democrat had an iPhone, and that iPhone registered any voter in that county. Our chairmen had nothing comparable to that, in 2008 and 2012. We were outmanned and out-hustled.”
But what about, as Barbour called him, the 600-pound gorilla in the room? What about the Republican frontrunner? What about the message he’s espousing?
“There’s a lot of things we could learn from Donald Trump, good and bad,” Barbour said. “He communicates awfully well, he’s certainly connected with a lot of voters who are otherwise pretty disinterested and fed up with the Republican Party and Washington in general, so I give him credit for that. But too many times, he’s dividing people and making disparaging remarks about all sorts of groups of people. Whoever challenges him he immediately trashes. That’s problematic as far as growing the party and winning the general election.”
Barbour seemed to concede that Trump’s rhetoric goes against the express recommendations he and his colleagues made, such as when they wrote that “It does not matter what we say about education, jobs or the economy; if Hispanics think we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies.”
But, Barbour believes a different nominee will rise and prevent Trump’s candidacy from harming the party.
Sarah Chamberlain is president of the Republican Main Street Partnership, a group that brings together moderate Republicans in Congress. She prefers to call them the “governing wing” of the party. (I did not ask what that makes Republicans like Ted Cruz.)
On the rise of Trump—the candidate, just a reminder, who dismissed a Fox news moderator by suggesting she was on her period—Sarah Chamberlain was less horrified than others.
“I feel he’s running the way he has to for the primary, and I think in the general, when he’s the standard-bearer, that he’s going to run as more of a governing candidate,” she said. “In my opinion, he’s giving us reality TV. That’s what Americans want. This seems to be what the American people want, and Donald Trump is giving it to them.”
More than a month out from Republican candidate Carly Fiorina dropping out of the nominating race, it’s easy to forget Republicans also tried to run damage control on their abysmal poll numbers with women as well.
Since 2012, Chamberlain said the Partnership has been touring the country, reaching out to women specifically to try to shore up support on the economic issues that affect women. Republicans haven’t run the sort of candidate who could appeal to women and everybody voters in recent memory, Chamberlain said.
“We’ve never run a governing candidate as President,” she said. “Mitt Romney probably was the closest to a governing Republican we’ve run in a while, but the fact he was friends with a NASCAR team owner probably took away from that.”
Several times during our interview, Barbour expressed that he believes Marco Rubio to be the candidate best equipped to embody what the Growth And Opportunity Project called for. The young Senator from Florida, married to a Colombian-American wife and himself the son of Cuban immigrants, has won two primary contests as of this writing—taking Minnesota and Puerto Rico.
“I think that if somebody like Marco Rubio ends up being our nominee, so much of this can be put behind us,” Barbour said. “I think we’ll win. I think we will do very well with Asians and Hispanics and outperform expectations with African Americans because all these people are ready to see the country get back to a strong economic track, and I think Rubio so exemplifies the American dream.”
If it isn’t strictly impossible for Rubio to rally and reach a majority of delegates before Trump does, it certainly would seem to be improbable as he continues to emerge bloodied from televised debates and seems to have lost the support of Fox News’ propaganda machine.
Rubio, it is worth noting, has had to all but disavow the doomed immigration reform he championed just months after the report—which specifically called for immigration reform as a policy the Republican Party had to embrace to show it cared about minority voters. If that was a message the report tried to get across, it seems to have been flatly ignored.
And that last recommendation, strengthening the eventual nominee through a retooling of the primary process: If anything, the winner-take-all primaries in the later states seem to advantage nobody but Trump, who regularly scores pluralities even if he can’t ever lock down majorities.
In this cycle, it is difficult to see, with Rubio faltering and Ted Cruz failing to consolidate support in a party that seems to hate him more even than Trump, how Republicans will be voting for a nominee other than Trump come November. Election nerds are bouncing up and down in anticipation of parliamentary shenanigans at the Republican nominating convention, but that has literally never happened in the history of the current system.
And if Trump does secure the 1,237 delegates necessary to reach a majority, it’ll be moot.
Ultimately, to combat that kind of influence and to put up a Republican candidate who represents a more moderate (Chamberlain didn’t ever say “sane”) platform, the party is going to need to do two things: Not break apart, and encourage moderate Republicans to get to the primary polls.
“I hope the party holds together through 2016. We can’t afford to fracture apart,” she said. “I will tell you: 95 percent of the women we talk to have never voted in their life in primaries. Our hope in the governing wing of the party is to educate people on how important it is to vote in primaries.”
A day after I interviewed Barbour, presidential also-ran Mitt Romney himself stepped up and denounced Trump publicly, joining a chorus of other leaders like Senator and former presidential candidate John McCain. Will it influence the primaries to come? The Republican base seems hell-bent on bucking whatever bridle the party establishment tries to put on them.
If their fervor and the inaction of the voters Chamberlain hopes to reach do end up carrying Trump to the nomination, the Republican Party’s voters will have ignored the core message its elders have for years been tactfully trying to deliver to them:
This is the future of your country, and these are your countrymen, and none of that means that your deepest beliefs need to change. Chill out. Por favor.