Is the GOP dead? Well, that’s what you would conclude from pundits on MSNBC or writing for the New York Times, but not if you have been following grassroots and online activists burning up blogs and conference calls since the November election. The newly elected GOP chairman, Michael Steele, has given fellow Republicans a challenge: it is time to beat the Democrats in the online world.
Since taking the helm of the Republican National Committee at the end of January, Chairman Steele has been popping up in new and old media taking issue with the stimulus bill and the Obama administration’s tax troubled appointees. But behind the scenes he has been partnering with Saul Anuzis, former Michigan GOP chair and former opponent in the race for RNC chairman, to invigorate the GOP online activists.
Last Friday, the RNC held the GOP Tech Summit at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington, D.C., which brought together bloggers, politicos, and activists to discuss ideas ranging from social networking to online fundraising. The forum was also broadcast online so that those who were interested from all over the country could view and submit their comments. Attendees even got a surprise visit from Chairman Steele and Newt Gingrich. Followers of the discussion were then given action items and deadlines on proposals to be given to Chairman Steele. GOP Tech Summit on the RNC website has now over 2,000 ongoing contributors who are busy discussing lessons learned and strategy.
The truth is, during the last election Senator McCain was badly outmanned against the online juggernaut of then-Senator Obama. The online strategists of Team Obama understood how to capture email addresses and cell numbers at rallies by making sure they accounted for every single person in attendance. Warm-up acts before the main surrogates asked attendees that supported Senator Obama to text a number which would be captured. They we later asked for a donation on their cells before they departed the event. Also, the Obama campaign created MyBarackObama.com, which allowed users to have a direct link to the campaign and later be tasked with assignments such as turning out the vote. Both were innovative uses of a superior online media strategy.
Now, not every voter wants to be texted political messages or fundraising requests. But using cell phone technology to get a quick update (such as the choice of vice-presidential nominee) was an ingenious way of keeping supporters involved in the campaign. Use of cell phone technology is only in its infancy in political campaigns, and, just as it is now used in Europe and Asia to conduct banking transactions, it will play a major role in future political communication and organization.
Chairman Steele understands that Republicans must act quickly and there is no time to lose. Therefore, he has tasked several working groups with the responsibility for bringing together experts and concerned activists from across the country to discuss initiatives. It is clear that he and his advisers are serious about the effort. For example, Anuzis jumped on a conference call for the tech grassroots on Tuesday night, thanking them for their forward thinking and openness.
Chairman Steele is right to be focused on technology. Americans are paying closer attention to politics than at any other time in recent history. With all the technologies available to distribute information this should be no surprise. But the technology is not necessarily one controlled by politicians. Politicians should wake up and realize that anyone with a cell phone now can be a reporter. Any slip of the tongue can wind up on YouTube. (Virginia Senator George Allen realized that a glib remark made at a small campaign event effectively undermined his re-election in 2006.)
Transparency is quickly becoming the buzz word in Washington. The days of politicians escaping from the public and evading responsibility for their rhetoric are drawing to an end. Websites like politifact.com are keeping tabs on the promises made and broken by President Obama. Individuals then can blast that information to their network on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter for thousands to see.
Chairman Steele has said that we are not going to win by using Facebook and Twitter. However, using all forums and media to reach voters, especially new voters, is the key to growing the party. “The internet is a living organism that is what you make of it,” says David All, a Republican strategist coordinating efforts for the tech grassroots working group.
Republicans are not that far behind and are quickly gaining ground on their political adversaries. The next congressional election will be here before you know it, and the presidential election is just a few years away. It is clear that if Chairman Steele has anything to say about it, the GOP will not repeat the same mistakes of 2008.