Reince Priebus talks political strategy, introduces party’s midterm themes.
By James Irwin
Reince Priebus saw a need to change the way the Republican National Committee ran itself. He watched the Democratic Party win presidential elections in 2008 and 2012 and believed a shift was necessary in the way the RNC supports its candidates.
“We had to stop being a national party that decided it’s OK to show up every four years five months before an election,” the RNC chairman said Thursday at the George Washington University. “We had become a U-Haul trailer of cash for a presidential nominee—that’s a loser strategy.”
Mr. Priebus, speaking at GW’s Jack Morton Auditorium at an event hosted by the Graduate School of Political Management, offered insight into the practice of politics during a discussion with Political Management Program Director Lara Brown. The session followed his speech that laid out the GOP’s thematic framework for the 2014 midterm elections.
“In the 2012 election, the Obama campaign had 2 million volunteers and had 300 people working in the digital world,” Dr. Brown said. “One of the things you discussed in your audit is the need for Republicans to catch up on digital.”
Mr. Priebus agreed. Overmatched digital strategy and a lack of party unity played significant roles in the Republican Party losing both the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, he said. It was more than an oversight. It was strategic error. He has since made efforts to buff up the party’s data strategy. When it comes to winning elections, he said, even the smallest details can help political consultants, campaign managers and party committee leaders make better decisions about where to deploy volunteers and spend money.
“Data analytics can tell me, on a scale of zero to 100 now, what your propensity is to support our candidates,” he said. “So if I’m in Iowa, and I get 100,000 absentee ballots, I want to make sure I know what 100,000 people I want to send the absentee ballot to. That’s important. So we ask questions: What do you think? What do you buy? What magazines do you subscribe to? What car do you drive? How much money do you make? How many kids do you have?
“You have to be a national party obsessed over the mechanics.”
In an 11-point speech preceding his conversation with Dr. Brown, Mr. Priebus covered economic, social, foreign and domestic policy topics and outlined the Republican Party’s “Principles for American Renewal.” He stuck mostly to scripted remarks during the speech— aside from an entertaining, joking quarrel with GSPM Director Mark Kennedy over Thursday night’s Vikings-Packers game (Mr. Priebus is from Wisconsin and Mr. Kennedy is a former U.S. Congressman from Minnesota.) The midterm themes included taking steps toward American energy independence, passing a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, opening up more scholarships allowing students in underperforming public schools to attend private schools and providing better care for veterans in the wake of the Department of Veterans Affairs scandal.
Most of the speech attempted to dispute widely held criticisms of the party, including that it has obstructed Barack Obama’s presidential agenda without offering alternative solutions.
“People know what we’re against. I want to talk about the things we’re for,” Mr. Priebus said. “If anyone asks, ‘How’s the Republican Party going to work for me,’ these principles are part of the answer.”
With Election Day one month away, his visit was a glimpse into the strategy behind both the message and marketing side of national political management.
“We teach students how to advance causes and candidates in an ethical and professional way,” Mr. Kennedy said. “Every election cycle comes with a new skill, a new strategy, a new tool. Better understanding those tools is a key function for what we’re trying to bring to our students, so it’s best to bring people here that are actually in the arena that are working at it.”