I have spent the last week recovering from the disappointment of election day. I have spent a lot of time talking to the mid-level operatives from the McCain campaign. (the top level are on TV playing the recriminations games, in undisclosed locations, or drinking their brains out in Vegas) There are things that we can learn from this election.
The first is that John McCain won the primary because of an often neglected part of the coalition: military voters. Redstate’s Erick Erickson said the point well on the night of the Florida primary:
Tonight was not a failure of conservatism, but a triumph of military voters who have made their home in the Republican Party because we are the party of a strong national defense.
In both South Carolina and Florida, they won it for McCain. In the grand coalition of the GOP, we’ve talked about social conservatives and fiscal conservatives. We’ve all ignored the military voters, except John McCain. And he won them big. His message resonated.
This is not a sufficient grassroots for the GOP in a national race, but it was a powerful one in the primary. We as a party should feel and water this part of the coalition better than we have done in the past. We will likely get a generation of candidates who served in Iraq and/or Afghanistan who will be powered by the volunteer work of volunteers who supported McCain. In addition, I wouldn’t be surprised if this developed into a meaningful faction in GOP politics in the next couple of years.
Second, the GOP is good at managing the mechanics of GOTV. However, we are not very good at managing and empowering our grassroots. The Democrats are. Open Left’s Mike Lux, now on the Obama transition team, said:
I am grateful that field organizing and working with grassroots volunteers is actually in fashion again, and in so much bigger a way than it has ever been in my lifetime.
At a time that technological and volunteer energy was at an all-time high, even on the GOP side, the RNC deployed a mythically small number of field staff, opened a mythically small number of campaign offices, and generally deprioritized grassroots. We simply didn’t tap into that energy effectively. Often we failed because we were inept. Often, these were the product of intentional decisions by state parties (see below) who were afraid of new people (see above). More broadly, a whole number of volunteer engagement plans failed to materialize. I still have drafts of some of them.
Third, many of our state parties are completely dysfunctional. COMPLETELY. There have been some horror stories out of state parties that should have been able to pull their own weight but simply weren’t. I won’t name names yet, but it is not good. There is indeed a correlation between the states that have lost elections and the state of their parties. There are two solutions to this. Either someone needs to take them over from below or, much less preferably, they need to be fixed top-down from DC with new staff, bypassing and eventually surpassing the state parties.
Fourth, history will probably show that the mistake of squashing of the libertarian grassroots out west in the form of the Ron Paul campaign could resonate for years. Fewer activists, less money, etc. Many people will try to blame McCain and/or his campaign, but I do not believe that a single state party stood up for a significant part of their grassroots. Often, the parties were so weak that they ended up being complicit in tossing out Paul-supporting libertarians because they were afraid of new people coming in and taking over. These same parties were already in desperate places because of their inability to respond to the growing strength of latino voting blocs with outreach to bring them over. These are not the responses of healthy parties.