The eulogies for the GOP came in quickly after the 2012 presidential election, all of them declaring a different cause of death. The Republican Party, pundits said, had ignored women to its peril. The GOP was overly reliant on white voters, ignoring massive demographic shifts that will see US whites lose their majority status by 2043. Anti-science and anti-gay messages hurt the party with millennials. And it wasn’t just the messaging—it was the medium. A long-term strategy for rebuilding the Right’s political base meant meeting these key demo-graphic voters where they live: online.
Digital media dominates the recommendations from the Republican National Committee’s official postelection autopsy white paper, including a recommendation to “conduct targeted tests of messaging to young voters and attempt to empower young people via social media.” And while the youth bloc is a prime audience for online outreach—a September 2014 Nielsen report found millennials to be the dominant smartphone demographic, with more than 85 percent owning the devices—digital adoption is increasing across all key demographics. Another 2014 Nielsen study found that, compared to the average American, Hispanics were almost 10 percent more likely to own a smartphone and watched 34 more minutes of mobile video per month. Women, too, are outpacing men in social media participation, with a 2013 Pew study finding that 74 percent of American women were active on social networks, compared to just 62 percent of men.
In short, conservatism faced a stark reality in the wake of the 2012 election: without a better digital presence, irrelevancy was inevitable. The whole ideology could go extinct.
And it was about that time that Bret Jacobson and Ian Spencer’s phone started ringing.
JACOBSON AND SPENCER are the cofounders of the Washington, D.C.–based Red Edge, a digital advocacy firm built on broadly libertarian, small-government beliefs that caters to similarly minded clients. One of the more high-profile campaigns the four-year-old company has worked on involved a character called Creepy Uncle Sam, who dons a large plastic head with a grotesque smile and does all manner of digital things to convince people of the evils of Obamacare.
The character was created by Generation Opportunity, a libertarian-conservative “millennial advocacy” group. Red Edge helped the organization bring Sam to Snapchat, the picture and video messaging app favored by a younger demographic, with more than 70 percent of its users under 25. To announce the campaign—thought to be the first-ever political advocacy effort on the platform—the team produced a video showing Creepy Uncle Sam slowly raising a cigarette to his lips, mimicking a trailer for the Netflix political drama series House of Cards, which was circulating widely online at the time. Users who signed up would get a few messages a day on the platform, most of them mocking Obamacare.
For Red Edge, it was a demonstration of sorts, showing their clients the possibilities offered by new platforms. But the campaign also drew attention from a number of news outlets, keeping an ongoing media narrative about the alleged big-government dangers of the health-care bill alive during a news lull. Most important among the media hits: a piece in BuzzFeed, a news site favored by their client’s young target demographic.
The project was distinctly Red Edge: Working at the forefront of digital media with acute pop culture awareness and biting, caricatured commentary.
Spencer and Jacobson both spent years honing this approach—minus the tech—as editors of the Oregon Commentator, the University of Oregon’s libertarian-leaning student newspaper. Founded in 1983, the publication is dedicated to the ideals of “free minds, free markets, and free booze.” Jacobson was publisher for his last two years at Oregon; Spencer became editor in chief in 2005.
The newspaper was a training ground for both management and messaging. “It can be difficult for people to head toward one mission if they are all volunteers,” says Jacobson. “And not only did the Commentator not pay, but it actively cost us money.” The lessons learned about swaying external audiences still hold, too. “We learned to talk about important issues in a way that people opted into reading—and sometimes that is explaining supply and demand by using booze, and sometimes it is making fun of something sacred to shock people so they take the time to engage with what you are saying,” says Spencer. Holding up a mirror to radicals of all sorts was also a favored approach. “A lot of what we did, frankly, wasn’t even us talking about things, it was us quoting people who were insane and letting them speak for themselves,” says Jacobson. One example of this—Jacobson’s favorite—was “Spew,” which consisted of four or five quotes from people around campus that the Commentator staff found outlandish. “For me, some of the most powerful stuff is just letting the fringe elements who are actually guiding policy decisions reveal how off their rocker they are.”
And while student government leadership was a popular target—“no one takes themselves more seriously than the student government people”—one of Jacobson’s favorite examples came during a discussion in his “quote-unquote leadership class,” after students were shown a film about Nelson Mandela. When posed the question “What did you learn?” by the instructor, a student offered a response Jacobson deemed “Spew”-worthy: “I can’t believe he was the president of Africa.”
Both Spencer and Jacobson headed to Washington, D.C., after graduation. “I was interested in talking about issues,” says Spencer. “D.C. seemed like the hub of that universe.”
“If you want to make a national or global impact, you can’t go anywhere but D.C.,” says Jacobson. The two eventually ended up as coworkers in a boutique communications firm where their work included “pushing back against the most radical of activists,” according to Jacobson, a group that included animal rights groups, community organizers, and labor unions.
They liked the work, but they wanted to pick their own clients and projects. Founding Red Edge gave them independence. “We wanted the ability to work on the issues that we cared about, and not have to work on issues that we disagree with,” says Jacobson. “Being able to do that has been a very good thing for the soul.” Besides, he says, party politics has never been their thing. “Party activity is only an element of something that we care much more about, which is advocating ideas and issues that we care about—if for no other reason than it is easier to remain passionate about an idea for a lot longer than it is to support an individual.”
But when Spencer and Jacobson launched Red Edge in 2011, the market for their vision hadn’t fully developed. Their first office was a basement below a kickboxing studio, which relegated any client calls to before 5:00 p.m., when the din of the after-work cardio crowd made conversations untenable. Their second office was over an antique shop—“a great setting to do cutting-edge digital media,” notes Jacobson. “It was an unglamorous start.”
Then came the 2012 election. “We were a bit fortunate in that there is a really incredible need for good tech work on the libertarian-slash-conservative side of things,” says Spencer. “Certainly, after 2012, it became even more apparent.” Evidence of this can be seen in the company’s growth. In early 2013, Red Edge expanded to five people; they now employ 12, including software developers and graphic designers.
THE INDIRECT CAUSE OF THE GROWTH is a general awakening by the political Right about the importance of utilizing digital media. No longer are even the most established Republican political figures solely reliant on TV spots and mailers. In his 2014 Kentucky reelection race, Senator Mitch McConnell spent almost 15 percent of his $30 million campaign budget on digital endeavors, according to Politico. When Republican House Speaker John Boehner wanted to show his disapproval of President Obama’s plan for free community college education in January 2015, he posted brief videos of pop star Taylor Swift.
The movement is afoot. And Jacobson and Spencer aren’t the only Oregon alumni who have benefited from the Right’s digital boom. Former Commentator editor Owen Brennan (formerly Rounds), BS ’95, has seen a similar uptick in requests for his services. A former speechwriter for longtime New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani and producer for Fox News’s The O’Reilly Factor, Brennan is a partner at Madison McQueen, a multimedia advertising firm in the Los Angeles area that operates under the motto “Liberty Needs an Ad Agency.” Brennan’s team at Madison McQueen has worked on everything from the Matrix movies to Super Bowl ads. Another motto sums up their approach: “We are bringing Hollywood production value to the war of ideas.”
“Generation X is the fulcrum,” says Brennan. “Anyone older than 44 or 45 is reading newspapers, listening to talk radio, watching cable news. Anybody younger than that is getting their news off of Twitter.” For your typical conservative think tank or policy shop, the media model has become fairly well entrenched: put out a white paper, get a hit on conservative talk radio, maybe an appearance on Fox News, and call it a day. “That’s not getting the message out to millennials. We realized there was a huge problem with getting the message out to young people.”
So have the political financiers. “Demand definitely outpaces supply,” says Kristen Soltis Anderson, columnist for the Daily Beast and cofounder of the digital research firm Echelon Insights. “Campaigns have realized that you have to be where people are talking, and today, that means online.” And while immediate results are nice, targeting the youth demographic is also a long play. “Today’s young voters aren’t going to turn 40 and suddenly say, ‘Okay, now I’m going to read the newspaper and listen to the radio,’” says Anderson. Digital media also has the benefit of real metrics, with YouTube views and click-through numbers offering much deeper measurement than TV ads. “TV’s not becoming obsolete, but it is becoming less important as digital becomes more important.”
This is why Brennan has enough business that he doesn’t worry about the bank account. It is also why Red Edge gets so much work solely from word-of-mouth advertising that they can choose their clients based on how closely their ideals match their own.
But as financially successful as both of them have been, neither Brennan nor Red Edge is in it solely for the mortgage payment. It’s a mission.
“That younger generation—we’ve got to get to them,” says Brennan. “We have to talk to them where they are, which is their mobile devices. Finding out how young people learn about and talk about politics is essential to getting our message into that space. Because I think our ideas are right. How hard is it to make young people question authority? How hard is it to get young people suspicious of big government and Big Brother?”
“I would say that we could make the same or more just selling consumer goods with the skills that we have,” says Jacobson. “But this not only means a lot to us, I now also have a kid [a one-year-old daughter] and I want her to grow up with more opportunity than I had, not less. And there’s a very real possibility that if we were to sit on the sidelines, that the world would be worse off in 10 to 15 years. And if you believe that, you can’t in good conscience not do everything you can for as long as you can.”
AS GLOOMY AS STARING into the wide digital chasm between Left and Right can be, Red Edge sees hope. In the past two years, Jacobson says, their clients have gotten smarter, pushing the boundaries of their engagement strategies. “They are also getting better educated at what a really good partner delivers to them—as opposed to trying to run a million-dollar organization on a website built by your nephew for $48,” he says.
And investment is increasing. Jacobson and Spencer have seen clients across the board start allocating more to both digital infrastructure and digital marketing. Anderson notes that while TV still accounts for 85 percent of the typical ad mix, digital has reached 10 percent and is growing.
Of course, they’ve had to learn the hard way, says Brennan. And it’s not just from the presidential election. He points to Republican Richard Mourdock, who, during a discussion of abortion in a state senate race debate in 2012, said, “I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.” The comment ignited an online firestorm, and Mourdock would eventually lose his race. “When a GOP candidate says something stupid, then they understand the power of social media,” he says. But enough people on the Right have seen the light that Madison McQueen no longer offers social media boot camps, which feature detailed explanations of the algorithms that run Facebook and YouTube. “They’re getting it,” says Brennan. “Now we just need better messaging—we need to get away from the ominous 30-second spot with the creepy voiceover and the headline ripped from the pages.”
For Spencer and Jacobson, this starts with understanding the issue—usually some encroachment by a member of Congress or a regulatory body—and then finding the cleverest, shortest way to tie it to a larger principle like fairness or justice. Then comes deciding on both message and medium. For the latter, it can mean everything from a simple website to a highly targeted video campaign aiming to sway as few as a dozen people in a district. For their clients Associated Builders and Contractors, who are often fighting against labor-related legislation, they developed a smartphone app that would allow members to send a letter to their congressional representatives without leaving the job site. For Generation Opportunity, they developed an iPad version of the national voter registration form that gave field workers a secure, portable way to push more people to the ballot box. “Obviously, voter registration is big for voter engagement,” says Spencer.
“A really good craftsman has all the tools available and then picks just the right ones for the project,” says Jacobson. “Generally the desired result is less government involvement in our lives. Whatever is the best fulcrum or lever set that gets us there is where we go.”
The digital world feels like it not only offers the most relevant response, says Jacobson, but also a vehicle most ideologically matched to Red Edge’s mission. “One of the things that is most exciting about digital tools and the accompanying digital philosophy is that it inherently treats every user like a sovereign entity that has to be respected, and that’s exactly like our political and life philosophy.”
Plus, there’s no stasis. Jacobson sees big changes coming to digital communications, with people moving from a broadcast view of communications—à la Twitter, where one person is spreading messages to the masses—to a “really fascinating set of one-to-one relationships where I am serving you content that is interesting specifically to you and that makes your life better.” Which sounds complex, but, in practice, can be something as simple as a website that employs users’ locations to promote state-specific information or web ads that use readers’ preferences to tweak messaging.
Spencer picks up the thought: “And you’re able to do that because you’ve been receptive to what people have had to say. It’s a conversation.”
The future, then, for building a younger generation of free-market, small-government supporters, will be more about targeting and tactics than digital blitzkrieg.
“It’s amazing to see what happens when you treat people as people,” says Jacobson.
—By Dan Morrell
Dan Morrell has written for the Atlantic, the New York Times, Slate, Monocle, Fast Company, Bostonmagazine, the D.C. City Paper, and others. He is the editor of the Harvard Business School alumni magazine.