BOSTON — In the hours after Barack Obama’s electoral rout of Mitt Romney, young Republican operatives in Washington, Boston, and around the country felt the same letdown as their bosses — the older crop who ran the losing campaigns of 2012.
But some of the younger generation — people in their twenties and thirties, digital natives, committed conservatives — reported another feeling: relief. The time had finally come to push aside the television-centric operatives who have run Republican campaigns for a generation, to reset the party’s values around race and sex, and to adapt its tactics to the era of Twitter. Politics has always been ruthlessly competitive, with one cycle’s guru the next cycle’s washed-up cable news commentator. Mentors have always had to keep an eye out for protégés wielding daggers. And now the daggers are out.
“Pretty much every relevant oldster consultant's strategy has been repudiated the last two presidential cycles,” said a young Republican operative reflecting on the heat of the campaign.
Tuesday’s election “was a clearing of old mind-sets,” said a second operative deeply immersed in the Romney campaign. “We just can’t keep running campaigns like we used to. Too often the tactical realities of trying to win in 2012 ran into the old maxims of campaigns run in the past.”
“If we are going to try to win, we need real coalitions, operations run by real data, and real communications operations,” the Republican said. “If we run 2016 like 2000 and 2004, we will lose again.”
This younger generation, still mostly male, some bred in state and local campaigns, others who came up in the hypercompetitive Capitol Hill staff environment, have spent the last two campaigns stifling deep disagreements with their bosses on two points. One is tactical: Most of the brightest and most charismatic Republican operatives of the last generation became television admen, because that was where the money was. A few, like Bush guru Karl Rove, made their money in the dark arts of direct mail. And at the helm of campaigns, they spent their money on television and mail. The newer generation has deep skepticism about the utility of television advertising; few have any personal memory of actually reading what comes in the mail.
The second set of disagreements is around policy. The younger generation is at least as conservative — in some cases, more conservative — about the role of government, many of them libertarian idealists and foreign policy hawks too junior even to have been on the front lines of Bush Administration successes and failures. But they also spent their early careers stifling disgust at a kind of gay-baiting politics that has little resonance even on young social conservatives who still care deeply about abortion; and they are similarly free of any sense of allegiance to, or guilt for, Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy, with its wink at the racist policies of segregation.
“Broadly, we have to find a way to communicate on these issues in a way that doesn’t scare people,” said former Eric Cantor aide Brad Dayspring, who ran the YG Action Fund super PAC this cycle and is one of a dozen people of his generation coming to be central on Capitol Hill. “How do Republicans respond? By adapting their principles to current problems and challenges.”
It may be hard for observers of politics to grasp just how young this new generation of Republicans is. Many of them aren’t just post-Reagan. Many of them are post-Bush, having worked in mid-level Capitol Hill jobs or very junior administration jobs during the last Republican Administration.
“The issue is, a lot of the guys from Bush '04 are stuck in that mind-set and you really saw it in '08 and '12,” grumbled one Washington Republican who worked in Congress during the Bush years. “They are more consumed with feeding the beast than nurturing the beast.”
This applies, particularly, to the management of national campaigns.
“The George W. Bush map to victory is dead. Republican candidates, donors, operatives, and activists all must start with a view of the entire country as battleground,” said Vincent Harris, a Republican consultant based in Texas and one of a small group who specializes in online campaigns. “Collectively the party simply cannot afford to write any demographic group or geographic area off anymore.”
Relatively few members of this younger generation were eager to speak on the record. One crucial piece of the political apparatus, in the age of the super PAC, are personal relationships with political donors, many of them men in their sixties, seventies, or older, whom veteran consultants have spent years or decades cultivating, and who are key to their continued relevance.
One Republican digital and communications strategist laid the problem out simply: “I would say WE'RE already adapted,” referring to the younger set who’ve worked in politics for two presidential cycles now. “But the people cutting the checks aren't always.”
And many of the young class of operatives, speaking off the record, put that generation gap in brutally personal terms.
“Campaigns are a young person’s business now more than ever, in part because of the way people receive information and communicate has changed so much in just the last decade,” said a senior Republican staffer who came of political age in the late Bush years. “For example, Facebook and Twitter were not factors in the last campaign, and they arguably were the biggest factor in this one.
“I don’t know how you can run a modern campaign if you haven’t embraced information and social technology in your own life,” he said. “I don’t know anybody that uses landlines and the post office except Republican campaigns.”
Indeed, the fact that new forms of communications remain a relatively small fraction of campaign spending rankles many.
“We still haven't learned the lesson of the Obama campaign of 2008: The Internet and technology, by lowering transaction costs and barriers to entry, can empower individuals to be more impactful to the political process in general,” said Soren Dayton, a Republican consultant who specializes in new media. “Obama turned activists to organizers. Republican campaigns still treat activists as ATMs and phone-calling automatons.”
The wide agreement among the younger operatives on the need for a generational upgrade is matched by a near consensus on a pair of issues: gay rights and immigration. That’s a generational shift reflected by supporters’ unprecedented sweep in four ballot initiatives and referenda on Tuesday around the country. On immigration, they believe in the rule of law and support securing the border, but also want their party to get credit for a compromise solution that normalizes the status of most undocumented people in this country.
There is, though, among that younger generation, debate about whether the Republicans’ problem is basically about technology and about a few issues, or about something deeper.
“What concerns me about the folks on the Hill is they will get the wrong message from the last two elections — that we need to be more conservative,” said a Washington Republican who worked on the Hill in the late '00s and now works for an advocacy group. “The real message is we are behind the eight ball in every way possible.”
More common is the sense that the party’s problems can be fixed without a philosophical shift.
“We have to do a better job of appealing to women, minorities, and young people,” a state-based Republican operative said. “I think a lot of that starts with adopting an approach to social issues that is more of a ‘this is what I believe and here's why it's important, but it's not government or politicians' role to impose that upon others who may not feel that way.’ It will be a challenge to unite the various factions behind that philosophy, but if we're truly the party of limited government and individual freedom and initiative then we must be willing to be consistent with that view.”
Indeed, younger Republicans who would speak for the record almost universally rejected the notion that the party has gone broadly astray — it just has a communications problem.
“As a party and a movement, we have a lot of thinking to do,” said College Republican National Committee chairman Alex Schriver, whose organization worked to win back some of the Obama 2008 youth vote. “Everyone agrees we have some demographic concerns, but we didn't lose on principles or ideas. Our packaging lost, and we have to improve the way we communicate our message to young and Hispanic voters.”