President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign put the fear of Tech into the GOP. At nearly every turn, the president’s campaign seemed one step ahead of its opponents, defining them before they had a chance to define themselves, and managing to rebrand an embattled president Americans had lived under for four years.
After the election, his campaign was reformed into Organizing for Action (OFA) — a perpetual campaign,
established to support President Obama in achieving enactment of the national agenda Americans voted for on Election Day 2012. OFA will advocate for these policies throughout the country and will mobilize citizens of all parties and diverse points to speak out for speedy passage and effective implementation of this program, including gun control, sensible environmental policies to address climate change and immigration reform.
What stands out here? Post-election, the notoriously on-message and successful OFA hammered down on the wrong message and lost. Despite raising nearly $5 million in its first quarter and launching two pro-gun-control campaigns, and despite consistently touting polls showing 90 percent of Americans supporting background checks, there was no “speedy passage and effective implementation of… gun control.” Even with bipartisan support, it didn’t get the necessary two-thirds vote in the Democrat-controlled Senate. Meanwhile, immigration reform may face the same fate, and climate change is unlikely to relieve the blue team’s blues.
“The Organizing for America arm of the Obama machine has proven to be a paper tiger in its first major test,” one senior Senate staffer — who requested anonymity so he could speak frankly — told The Daily Caller. “Pro-Second Amendment groups were far more effective in pressuring members to vote against President Obama’s signature gun control item.”
But the president’s problem wasn’t simply tactical. There was also a messaging issue. What, exactly, were the Democrats proposing? And who could explain it?
“The administration never answered the question of how their [gun-control] proposal would have reduced crime or stopped the next massacre from happening, and people want to know that if you’re going to limit their rights, that there is some public safety benefit for it,” Brian Phillips, the communications director for conservative Sen. Mike Lee told TheDC. “The administration never connected the dots, and that’s why ultimately people opposed more gun control.”
So what was OFA — the men and women who so brilliantly connected the dots during the campaign, sharpening the president’s message into a pointed spear — doing during this debacle? They were employing the same tactics as they did during their get-out-the-vote campaign (albeit with less money and staff than during the election). They failed, however, and there are at least three major reasons why their efforts didn’t work in the non-election environment.
1) It’s harder to get people engaged in politics when there isn’t an election — especially a presidential election. Don’t believe us? Just check the web traffic for RealClearPolitics.com or The Politico today, and compare that to their traffic in October 2012.
2) It’s harder to get people excited over issues than it is to get people excited over campaigns. Don’t believe us? Just ask the Koch Institute or ThinkProgress — two organizations that focus on raising awareness of issues, not candidates.
3) While winning campaigns is about winning votes in swing states, winning issues is about winning votes in the Senate — a body of people who each have their own election math to do. Don’t believe us? Just look at the 14 senators who switched their votes midgame, which states they hail from, and when their next campaigns are.
While 50 Democrats and 16 Republicans supported proceeding to vote on the Toomey-Manchin background check amendment, only 48 Democrats and four Republicans actually voted for it — stopping it from passing. The two Democrats who voted against proceeding — Alaska’s Mark Begich and Arkansas’ Mark Pryor — are both in conservative states that are particularly vulnerable in 2014. The two Democrats who switched their votes to “nay” on the actual vote (excluding Harry Reid) — North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp and Montana’s Max Baucus — hail from states quite friendly toward guns.
But conservatives can’t afford to waste any time celebrating Obama’s tantrum-laden gun-control defeat, nor should they dismiss OFA’s ability to win future battles for the president. OFA is blazing new trails, attempting to execute a mission that has not been effectively executed before. These guys are smart, they’re determined, and they’ve shown that they have a strong ability to adapt and innovate — fast. They failed to apply their tactics effectively to the Senate this around, but it’s very likely that they’ll get the hang of things sooner than later.
“An interesting element is that their messaging is very similar to their 2012 GOTV efforts,” Aaron Ginn, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who was charged with growing Mitt Romney’s online base during the 2012 campaign, told TheDC. “It remains to be seen if these will be effective, however. They are fighting an uphill battle as most Americans disconnect from politics in off-year cycles.”
“Currently, Republicans are ill-equipped to mimic such an effort,” Ginn, who is now head of growth for StumbleUpon, cautioned. “It is not just sending emails, but applying the same level of data science rigor as modeling turnout on election day; though the RNC and other groups are working on getting us there. It is going to take a while to figure out what works in non-campaign years, but at least the Democrats are trying new things. Most likely, their push on gun control and immigration had minimal impact, but you have to fail first before you find something that works. You must iterate to get to where you want to go. This is Silicon Valley: 101.”
Republicans, and particularly conservatives, are outnumbered in the Senate. With gun control (temporarily) in the rear-view mirror, immigration reform in the headlights and the debt limit and spending battles just up the road, the president and his men aren’t licking their wounds; they’re sharpening their spears.