by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Sasha Issenberg offers Bloomberg Businessweek readers a fascinating story about Republicans’ embrace of the types of campaign techniques that have driven recent Democratic victories.
The mere existence of the CSI field experiments seminar represents the right’s most constructive engagement with the continued traumas of its loss in the 2012 Presidential race—not just the fact that it had lost, but that it didn’t know at the time it was losing, and even afterward was at a further loss to understand how or why it had done so. While many Republicans responded by conceding catch-phrase-ready deficiencies—a need to do more and better with Big Data or the Ground Game—others were willing to acknowledge that the underlying problem was the lack of a culture within the GOP to encourage innovation. For a small but significant share of the party’s electioneering class, however, any true reckoning with 2012 invites a deeper epistemological crisis about how to run smarter campaigns in the 21st century.
“We should not assume anything. Absolutely every aspect of the campaign, from the best way to knock on doors to the best way to broadcast television, should be tested,” says Blaise Hazelwood, a Republican voter-contact specialist who founded CSI. “This is the way I did it on this campaign that won, so this is the way we should do it on all campaigns,” Hazelwood says, mocking the prevailing sentiment of entrenched political consultants. “The test for them is whether they win or lose on election day. That cannot be a valid test.”
The conservative establishment has a long tradition of organized gatherings. First there were Paul Weyrich’s weekly “coalitions” lunches, held on Wednesdays when Congress was in session. Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist later claimed the breakfast slot that day, his sessions focused more on economic policy than social issues. Donors and journalists in New York started meeting one Monday per month for an hour and a half; after relocating to South Carolina, Monday Meeting founder Mallory Factor took the concept south with him, launching the Charleston Meeting. All these were devoted to ideological cohesion and legislative strategy, the matching of like-minded donors and politicians. They tended to reaffirm certainties, rather than challenge them.
The CSI circle has yet to fall into a reliable schedule, and its gatherings—which now take place roughly every six weeks or so at Cato’s Washington headquarters—already mark a very different mode of collaboration. There is not a politician in sight, or many brand-name operatives; few attendees appear to be over the age of 40. This sphere of political operatives and party hacks angling to remake Republican campaigns includes strategists and tacticians for many of the party’s top presidential candidates, along with staffers from the Republican National Committee and consultants attached to various elements of the Koch political network.
“I sense it’s one of the few places where the warring factions of the conservative side of the aisle play together in the same sandbox,” says Columbia University political scientist Don Green, who has advised the group since its launch. “You have people who are close to the Tea Party and people who are antagonistic towards the Tea Party, and they’re all trying to learn from the same research method.”
All of this sounds pretty interesting, as long as these folks remember that, beyond the focus on data, ideas have consequences.