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GOP Makes Tech Advances After Autopsy but Troubles Linger

Image: Reince Priebus

Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus speaks before the California Republican Party 2014 Spring Convention Friday, March 14, 2014, in Burlingame, Calif. Ben Margot / AP

Republicans are eager to highlight the ways they have made good on the recommendations of their “autopsy” diagnosing their losses in the 2012 elections. Despite those gains though, the party still faces serious struggles in addressing some of the deeper issues that have festered within the GOP over the past six years.

The party has made tremendous strides in addressing the party's aged infrastructure since the self-styled blueprint to revitalization was released one year ago this week. Come 2016, Republicans may well have drawn even with Democrats in terms of access to the high-tech tools and information that are the lifeblood of the modern political campaign.

Still, a year removed from the Republican National Committee (RNC) report recommending dozens of reforms to the GOP's outreach, rhetoric and organization, the party isn't much closer to determining its overarching identity. Republicans remained locked in fights — both internally and externally — over how the party should move forward on social, economic and foreign policy issues.

Triumphs

The RNC's "Growth and Opportunity Project" report offered a far-reaching assessment of why Mitt Romney and many fellow Republicans lost in 2012, and how the party could best adapt growing forward. Among the biggest strides taken by Republicans in the year since the report's publication are those which fall directly within the RNC's purview.

Those success stories — which largely involve party organization and manpower — are the ones Republicans are most eager to highlight. The party has spent millions, for instance, on building a data operation. The RNC hired Silicon Valley all-stars to head up new, separate positions in charge of technology, digital and data operations. And the committee launched "Para Bellum Labs" — a self-described "tech start-up inside the RNC" — as a sign of its newfound commitment to data.

“I have been thoroughly impressed, but most importantly, proud of our party and our brand,” said Glenn McCall, a South Carolina RNC committeeman, on a conference call on Monday highlighting the report’s anniversary.

These investments are also the ones most likely to pay dividends. A Republican Party equipped with rich voter data files could replicate the kind of turnout machine the Obama campaign leveraged so effectively in 2012. In fact, the RNC points to the party's victory in a competitive special election in Florida earlier this month as a sign that their investments are beginning to pay dividends.

“Taking them at their word, I’m sure they’ve made some strides on technology and data acquisition,” said Brad Woodhouse, the president of the liberal action group Americans United for Change. “But that hasn’t changed their issues overall as a party.”

Republicans have also acted decisively to attempt to rein in the organization of the party's presidential primary process. After determining that the last primary was too drawn out and contributed to some of Mitt Romney's vulnerabilities in the general election, the RNC will condense the primary calendar in 2016 and move up the nominating convention to early summertime that year. An earlier convention would also give that next nominee earlier access to general election funds, allowing him or her to coordinate with the RNC at an earlier stage in the general election.

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Tribulations

The question facing the Republican Party is whether these new tools are enough to drive the party to victory without having to resolve some of the bigger internal struggles that have plagued the GOP for years now.

The “Growth and Opportunity” report offered several recommendations as to how the party might solve some of those issues; a year after the report, the GOP’s most glaring shortcomings involve meeting those recommendations.

The report's starkest recommendation advised the GOP to "embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform" or risk performing even worse among Hispanic voters in the future. A year later, immigration reform is all but dead in Congress, at least for now. A handful of Senate Republicans spearheaded passage of legislation in the upper chamber, only to have the House GOP spurn their proposal and fail to rally around an alternative. Sen. Marco Rubio, a champion of the Senate bill, has distanced himself from immigration as an issue in the months since.

Republicans protest judging the report’s entire success or failure by immigration reform. But GOP champions of immigration reform have been issuing thunderous warnings about the consequences for the party in 2016 if Republicans don’t address a growing deficit with Hispanic voters.

“I think we have made a lot of progress on the organizational side, but I think it's such a huge undertaking that it's going to take years to do what we need to do,” said Henry Barbour, another RNC committeeman and report author, on Monday’s call. The report also counseled that gay rights are a "gateway" issue that risks turning off younger voters unless the GOP can be seen as more inclusive. In the year since, a handful of Republican lawmakers have endorsed same-sex marriage rights, though the rest of the party remains opposed to marriage rights.

“They could catch up and equal the data expertise and tactics, but it won’t do them any good if they don’t have a product that broadens the base of their party,” said Woodhouse. “There’s not a question, in my view, that they have failed.”

These reforms have struggled because they involve fundamental shifts in long-held Republican policy, a change which the RNC is ill-suited to drive. The party has taken some steps to improve its outreach, by hiring dedicated staff to reach out to African Americans, Asian American and Pacific Islanders, women and Hispanic voters (among other communities). But for every effort to improve outreach, there are instances like Alaska Rep. Don Young's reference to "wetbacks," or former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's awkward suggestion that Democrats have taught women to depend on "Uncle Sugar" for free birth control.