Iowa GOP building new machine to sell old ideas

Thomas Beaumont wrote about the Republican Party of Iowa’s revamped outreach strategy in Monday’s Des Moines Register. GOP chairman Matt Strawn is working on several fronts to bring the party back to power after three consecutive losses in Iowa gubernatorial elections and four consecutive elections in which Republicans lost seats in the Iowa House and Senate.

Strawn’s strategy consists of:

1) meeting with activists in numerous cities and towns

2) using social networking tools to spread the Republican message

3) building an organization with a more accurate database

After the jump I’ll discuss the strengths of this approach as well as its glaring flaw.

First, Strawn deserves credit for getting out there and meeting Republican activists face to face. The GOP base is demoralized, and it’s smart for Strawn to reach out to them in person. Beaumont notes,

Strawn has spoken in 34 cities since becoming chairman, including several with populations smaller than 5,000. Just last week, Strawn added Mount Ayr in southern Iowa to the list of towns smaller than 2,000 people he has visited.

Second, Strawn is right to communicate frequently with local activists via e-mail and social media like Twitter, and to nudge state legislators to do the same.

Third, to lay the groundwork for a better turnout effort in 2010,

[Strawn] hired one of Iowa’s most seasoned GOP organizers. Jeff Boeyink, the party’s new executive director, spent 20 years with Iowans for Tax Relief, a politically influential anti-tax advocacy and lobbying organization.

Strawn and Boeyink have begun building a voter database and centralizing the party’s financial accounting practices, and they are finishing an audit of likely Republican voters.

Previous chairmen should have done these tasks, but they were focused more on surviving the next election than building a lasting party structure, Boeyink said.

“You make too many decisions based on that short term, you end up with what we had when we got here,” Boeyink said, such as incomplete records and few functioning computers.

Republicans will need a better database in order to improve their GOTV next year. Iowa Democrats saved several Democratic state legislators in last year’s election by identifying supporters and banking their votes early.

So, full steam ahead for the Republican comeback?

There’s just one problem:

“I believe our principles and solutions are consistent with where Iowa voters are,” Strawn said. “What we need to do is do a better job of identifying those no-party or independent voters that share our beliefs and our principles, do a better job of talking to them and then find out what we need to do to turn them out.” […]

That’s great if Republican ideas and proposals are in line with the majority, but I’m skeptical. Exit polls from the last election showed, for instance, that Americans are inclined to think government should do more, not less. Also, Barack Obama won the election despite the fact that a majority expected their taxes to go up if he won.

Like Americans in general, Iowans are less likely to identify with the Republican Party these days:

In April, The Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll showed about 26 percent of Iowans identified themselves as Republican, down from its 10-year high of 32 percent in 2004.

The shift in Iowa parallels findings in a poll published by the Pew Research Center in May.

That poll, taken in April, showed 23 percent of Americans identified themselves as Republican, down from 30 percent in 2004.

Republicans may be tempted to take comfort in the knowledge that as Republican ID falls, Democratic ID is also slightly down, while the number of self-identified independents is up significantly. It’s worth noting, however, that self-identified independents increasingly line up with Democrats on various issues. For instance, the Pew Center found:

[Independents] continue to more closely parallel the views of Democrats rather than Republicans on the most divisive core beliefs on social values, religion and national security.

Strawn and Boeyink have been talking about taxes and the state budget a lot lately. In fact, some conservatives have criticized Strawn for not speaking out more forcefully against the Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling in Varnum v. Brien.

I guarantee that no matter what tone Strawn sets, a lot of Iowa Republican candidates will stake their 2010 campaigns on divisive social issues like same-sex marriage. Not only will Governor Chet Culver and Democratic state legislators be attacked for not “protecting” Iowans from marriage equality, the religious right will target the three Iowa Supreme Court judges up for retention next year. In addition, some Republicans may encourage Iowans to vote for the ballot initiative that would call a constitutional convention.

Iowa Republican leaders are using social media to appeal to young voters, and Strawn has planned an event in late June to highlight “rising stars” in the state party. Unfortunately for Republicans, conservative ideology is not a good fit for most young voters, who tend to support a larger role for government and civil marriage rights for same-sex couples, for example.

Yesterday Steve Benen posted about national Republican leaders’ confidence that social media will fuel their comeback:

It’s all very silly. For one thing, party leaders continue to confuse the technology with the substance behind it. College Republicans can have a Twitter account with plenty of followers, but if the group doesn’t have a compelling message to share, it won’t make any difference. It’s not the tool, it’s what you do with it.

I agree with Benen. The Republicans’ problem is what they say, not how they say it.

Final note: it would be foolish for Iowa Democrats to get overconfident about next year’s elections. Democrats may have a head start on organizing, but we still need a coherent message to take to voters, preferably a message based on big accomplishments thanks to Democratic control at the statehouse and Terrace Hill. I’ll have more to say on that in the near future.

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