How Conservatives Are Readying Their 'Grassroots Army' For 2016

Dalia Wrochesinsky (left) and Robin Saidenberg check their phones during the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday. (NPR)
Dalia Wrochesinsky (left) and Robin Saidenberg check their phones during the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday. (NPR)

This week's Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC, brought all the expected on and off the main stage in Washington D.C. — speeches by presidential hopefuls, debates and the annual straw poll. But there was one big addition: hundreds attended the conference's first-ever Activism Boot Camp, which trained attendees in the best practices of do-it-yourself campaigning.

The boot camp, powered by American Majority, a nonprofit conservative organizing group, was split into two tracks: the "Candidate, Campaign Manager & Campaign Operative" track and the "Activist" track. It featured lessons on social media, fundraising, organizing and data and technology.

Ned Ryun, American Majority founder and president, led a session called "Why We'll Lose the White House in 2016 (and Deserve to)" — call it a talk for motivated pessimists. He outlined exactly what President Obama did in his 2012 presidential campaign that was so successful and how Republicans can emulate it. Namely, he said, President Obama used the best data analysts and technicians from the for-profit tech sector.

And, Ryun says, Obama mobilized thousands more volunteers on the ground who were able to reach more voters in person than Mitt Romney did.

The message at CPAC was clear: a win for Republicans in 2016 must be a team effort. Conservatives need their activists to be active as individuals — on social media and in their communities — and as a whole to serve as a well-trained "grassroots army."

Aubrey Blankenship of American Majority presents during CPAC's Activism Boot Camp on Thursday.
Aubrey Blankenship of American Majority presents during CPAC's Activism Boot Camp on Thursday.

Sen. Ted Cruz enthusiastically made that call during his CPAC speech: "To turn this country around it will not come from Washington; it will come from the American people. And so I will ask every one of you if you will join our grassroots army." He then asked the audience to take our their cell phones and text the word 'Constitution' to a number he repeated.

There's a lot the right can learn from the left's grassroots campaign skills, said Charlie Kirk, founder of student-run nonprofit Turning Point USA. For one, President Obama "built his legions on the backs of millennials," he says.

Stephanie Sparkman, a Texas conservative who attended CPAC, agrees. One thing Republicans can do better, she says, is "flipping copy [on] what the Democrats have been so successful doing. It's not that hard."

The key part of that Democratic script, leaders say, is connecting with voters through in-person conversations, recruiting committed volunteers and paid interns, and establishing offices and executing targeted voter registration in battleground states like Ohio, Iowa, North Carolina and Florida. And no more knocking on doors with paper and pen, they advise — use tablets and smartphones instead. And, use social media to push conservative ideas.

One major target of that social media effort: Facebook. Obama's posts on the network were liked nearly twice as much as Romney's in June 2012, according to a Pew Study. Hoping to flip those numbers in 2016, one boot camp session taught activists how to cheat the Facebook algorithm to get more impressions on posts.

Turning Point USA is an organization that targets students and young people.
Turning Point USA is an organization that targets students and young people.

Firing Up Young Activists

Young conservatives also acknowledge they have a big role to play in the 2016 effort, especially when it comes to social media and on-the-ground engagement.

Many students attended CPAC and the boot camp in groups, including sophomore Alex Carrey, who helped organize the trip for 37 members of Miami University's College Republicans chapter. He was most excited to see Gov. Scott Walker speak, and most concerned about foreign policy and the turmoil in the Middle East.

One edgy speech spoke directly to young people. An activist who goes by Sabo, and calls himself a "Republican guerilla artist," said some may think he was there to teach "out-of-touch politicians how to connect with young voters." But, he spoke directly to them — talking about kicking former Sen. Wendy Davis' Hollywood donors in the nuts, and calling actress Gwyneth Paltrow "a tool" while photos of his "Obama drone" posters and a tattooed Ted Cruz were displayed on the screens behind him.

Sabo conceded that he knows street art is illegal saying, "I'm not trying to drag you kids into the gutter any more than I'm trying to drag you to church." But he says he's "trying to touch kids who are disinterested politically."

Political commentator Tom Basile says in order to reach millennial activists and voters, messaging must be visual and personal. Student-focused Turning Point USA, for example, tries to "unite people around principles" like free markets and limited government with slogans like "Big Government Sucks."

And those messages are sticking with young activists who say they are ready to change the tide in 2016.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.