The GOP updates its media roadmap

In 2014 and 2016, changing strategies present new story lines

On Monday, the Republican National Committee released a sweeping postmortem of the party’s 2012 election losses and called for wholesale reforms to Republicans’ electoral strategy. Most the attention so far has focused on the GOP’s blunt self-criticism—“We sound increasingly out of touch”—and recommendations for major changes to the logistics of the presidential race, such as regional primaries, fewer caucuses, and an early convention in June or July, with an eye toward fewer divisive battles and earlier consolidation around a candidate.

But less attention has been directed toward an array of proposals tucked into the middle of the report for reforming how Republican candidates and outside spending groups disseminate their message to the public.

Taken together, these recommendations would:

• overhaul the Republican Party’s media strategy,
• spell significant changes for the broadcast companies that raked in billions of dollars from political advertising during the 2012 campaign, and
• present new challenges and storylines for reporters and observers following campaign finance and the ad wars in the 2014 and 2016 races.

Journalists covering Republicans in both national and local elections should look for substantial changes in both the message and media of their ad buys, and a new role for outside spending groups—one in which they will have to walk a fine line to avoid inappropriate coordination with campaigns.

Below are three major changes that journalists, election watchers, and media companies should keep an eye on as the next election cycles begin to unfold:

1) Look beyond broadcast

In 2012, the biggest expenditures in both local and national races were television ad buys, with local broadcast stations capturing more than 80 percent of that spending. But the high cost of local broadcast ads, as well as their limited potential for targeting specific groups, has convinced the RNC that campaigns must diversify their advertising to a wide variety of platforms.

“Media plans and buys must integrate all platforms,” recommends the GOP report. “Media plans must incorporate increasingly diverse mixes of broadcast television, cable television, Hispanic advertising, sports programming, radio, internet advertising, social media, mobile and other emerging media.”

A spending shift toward a wider set of media would complicate the job of reporters following campaign spending, not to mention the fortunes of the broadcast stations that could see a reduced share of advertising. Outlets such as Internet providers or radio or ethnic media might see their share increase. TV spending is difficult enough to track in itself—we wrote last fall about how the leading sources measuring TV ad spending produced dramatically different numbers—and a shift to a wide variety of media would make it even harder to follow how campaigns are spending to persuade voters.

2) Expect targeted messages

During the 2012 presidential campaign, Barack Obama carefully targeted his messages to specific constituencies while Mitt Romney emphasized broad, overarching themes. For example, the Obama campaign ran ads targeting Latinos that were broadcast in Spanish, focused on issues such as immigration and education, and often featured narrators of the same national origin as the target demographic (see our story, “Obama’s special message in Spanish”). By contrast, the Romney campaign stuck to its central theme of jobs and the economy and spent far less on Spanish language ads, telling The New York Times that most Latinos speak English and are more concerned with the economy than with immigration.

If the RNC’s proposals are enacted, then the days of a single, across-the-board Republican message are over. “Targeted media demands targeted messages,” said the report. “The one-spot-fits-all model used by Republican presidential campaigns since the Reagan era is not enough.”

A profusion of targeted advertisements from Republican presidential candidates would present a broad new challenge for reporters seeking to fact-check, follow the money and provide context for these messages.

3) Outside groups will focus more on the ground game

Conservative outside spending groups, such as Karl Rove’s American Crossroads and the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, overwhelmingly directed their spending toward television advertising in both presidential and Congressional races. The poor showing on Election Day among candidates heavily backed by these groups has convinced the RNC that much like candidates, super PACs and nonprofits should diversify beyond TV in reaching out to voters.

“The pendulum has swung too far when it comes to spending on TV ads,” states the “Friends and Allies” section of the report, which addresses GOP-leaning outside groups. “Friends and allies should shift material amounts of their paid media funds to organizational efforts and other means of connecting with voters.”

The report goes on to specify ground and field organization and technology as areas where Republicans have fallen behind and are in need of outside support to be able to “effectively compete with the Democrats.” Democratic allies such as labor unions focus heavily on field organizing and ground game, and progressive organizations such as Catalist maintain political databases that both the party and its supporters can purchase for campaigns.

Bill Allison, the editorial director of the watchdog group Sunlight Foundation, said that so far there haven’t been complaints to the Federal Election Commission that Catalist or other Democratic groups have illegally coordinated with campaigns. But he said that the level of coordination already occurring on the Democratic side is troubling, and the practice bears close watching by the press and other observers.

“Anything that is suggestive of a pre-existing arrangement” between a campaign and outside group to divide up voter contacts would be a sign of illegal coordination, Allison said. One of the clearest indications would be geographic boundaries between campaign and outside groups’ outreach zones. “That is what I would look for,” Allison said. “Are there particular counties? Are there particular areas?”

The RNC did not respond to CJR’s inquiries about whether it was taking any measures to prevent illegal coordination.

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Sasha Chavkin covers political money and influence for CJR's United States Project, our politics and policy desk. He has written for ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity, and The New York World. Follow him on Twitter @sashachavkin. Tags: , ,