Republicans who run campaigns gripe they lose races because of candidates and ideology. It’s easy to understand why. Nominees who deny they belong to a coven or confuse—in the most offensive way conceivable—the basic biology of sex aren’t ideal nominees. The more electable ones, like Mitt Romney, are forced to adopt such a rigid agenda that they irritate half the electorate before the general election even begins. So victories are hard to come by, just as they would be for a sprinter with two sprained ankles.
But those same Republicans who have shepherded countless Senate, House, and presidential candidates should add one more culprit to their list: themselves. Because there’s mounting evidence that the party’s political class simply isn’t good at running campaigns anymore.
They’re certainly not as good as the Democrats. The turnout experts, TV whizzes, and all-around gurus of the Grand Old Party have been outnumbered and outsmarted by their adversaries, who have spent a decade retrofitting their entire political infrastructure. The result is a dizzying talent gap between the two parties’ political classes, one that shows few signs of closing as the 2014 midterms begin. In some ways, the GOP is years behind on solving a problem that has no quick fixes.
The chasm is widest in technology, an area where Democrats have innovated heavily while Republican tactics ossified. But the data and digital divide, while getting most of the attention, is only a symptom of a larger problem that cuts fundamentally to how the Republican Party operates—not just at a tactical level but also a philosophical one. The well-worn pathways of the party’s operatives, in which every low-level staffer commits his or her career to becoming a well-paid TV specialist, must change. The party’s best and brightest need to emulate the career arc of their Democratic counterparts, who devote themselves to data and fieldwork, areas where races are increasingly won or lost.
A party that celebrates individual achievement must learn to better share information and work together to form a new way of politicking—a practice Democrats have emphasized for years. For conservatives, that will smack of a collectivist mind-set they detest as a matter of public policy. But a top-to-bottom change in how the GOP’s political leadership thinks is exactly what many of its own strategists argue is necessary to catch up to Democrats.
“If you think [the] reason you lost to Obama is because you didn’t have a database, that’s just a fundamental misunderstanding,” said Patrick Ruffini, one of the party’s foremost digital consultants. “The problem lies not so much in not having those specific things. The problem lies in a culture.”