We interviewed Vincent Harris, the 26-year-old conservative strategist who thinks he can save the Republican Party from itself.
It's hard to deny that 2014 was a very good year for the Republican Party. Two years after its 2012 train wreck, the GOP returns to Washington this week with an eight-seat majority in the Senate and a deep bench of contenders who want to take on Hillary Clinton in the next election. And while the party hasn't quite managed to shake its reputation as a political nursing home for jowly white dudes, Republicans managed to creep out of the tech Stone Age this fall, and finally started making dents in the Democrats' digital campaign juggernaut.
Vincent Harris isn't impressed. The 26-year-old Republican strategist, best known for putting Ted Cruz on the internet, has relentlessly criticized his party for their technological backwardness, telling any reporter who calls that the GOP's digital operations are second-rate and that the party's claims of progress are "a lot of talk." Begrudgingly, other Republicans have started to listen, bringing Harris on to translate the 21st century for high-profile conservative campaigns.
This fall, Harris announced that he is ditching Cruz to join Rand Paul's political team, as both Senators gear up for likely presidential runs in 2016. We caught up with him recently to talk about the new gig, and how he thinks the GOP can step up its digital game this year.
VICE: Tell me about the new job. What exactly are you going to be doing for Senator Paul?
Vincent Harris: I've always been a big fan of Senator Paul, since he first came on to the scene in 2010. I'm a big admirer of him as a thought leader in the party, and nationally on everything from issues of security and privacy to expanding the party across age groups, across demographics. I'm also just a big fan of where he puts the Constitution and the powers of the federal government.
So how it really came about: I mean, I've known some of his staff. You know, I had a conversation with them and they offered me a big seat at the table, and I really believe that digital is going to play a very important role in Senator Paul's organization. And I believe that Senator Paul wants to continue to innovate and reach people through different, new means and to run a campaign that is unlike any organization that's been run previously. Really integrating a proper digital operation throughout the entire organization—and leading with digital and with data.
Obviously the Obama campaign in 2012 was very successful in bringing in people from Google and other major tech companies to run their digital operations. Is that something you're trying to do?
Look, these are great questions, and I want to answer them as much as I can without showing all my cards. But I will say this: I know that this organization is going to not just look to existing political technology. It's going to look to the market—to what the best technology is independent of the partisan affiliation associated with that technology.
And this organization is going to have input— big input at a big level, from people that want to help, in Austin, in Silicon Valley. We're going to throw the book out on how a tech [campaign] operation has been run previously. I don't want to just run the same operation that, say, President Obama's campaign ran. I want to run a more unique 2016-level operation. Something that was run four years ago is obsolete now.
Republicans have really struggled to keep up with Democrats digitally in the past few presidential elections. How can you close that gap?
I think what has happened on the Republican side is that Republicans are just looking to what President Obama's campaign has done, on every level, and they're just trying to mimic that. And if they can mimic that, then they feel like they can pat themselves on the back. Well, I'm not gonna be complacent, just copying what President Obama did.
They have digital suppressed under the communication shops and digital gets crumbs of what's left over from the television buying [funds] and digital is an afterthought. I think that's very concerning. They just say that they use digital and they're just trying to impress reporters and impress donors. So I really don't think that Republicans are at the place that they need to be.
So what exactly does your 2016 digital operation look like?
I think something that I'm willing to discuss now is that I want this organization—I'm just going to say "organization" for the time being—I want this organization to be not just simply Rand Paul talking at his supporters, I want this to be a crowdsourced campaign. A crowdsourced organization. I think that is one way you're going to see things going differently. It is my vision to build a platform, and to build an organization, that can be manipulated by the developer community.
All of this is going to be rolled out over the next few months, so I don't wanna get ahead of myself. But I can tell you, there is not anything that we are going to be pitched that we are going to turn away. There is not any idea from our supporters, or from the tech community in Austin or Silicon Valley, that isn't going to be listened to.
Look, I don't know everything, right? Not any one person in our organization knows everything. And that's not how you innovate—thinking you know everything and just running a closed-circle operation. That's not what this is going to be. I want to hear from the tech community and we're going to build an infrastructure where, if we're doing something wrong, our supporters in the community are going to be helping us and giving input.
I think this is a mistake that large presidential campaigns in the past have made. First off, they've only looked to the insular, political tech community. And then, as the organizations have grown, they haven't listened. They haven't listened to what's new in the Space Race and that has led to a stifling of how campaigns and how political operations have been run. One thing that I'm making certain of is that I don't wanna talk to the same three people that have pitched and worked in the political space. I wanna talk to new people and different people. To people that are helping Target, and are helping Home Depot, and that are helping McDonald's. The people that have helped Old Spice online. That's who I wanna talk to.
A lot has been made of Rand Paul's efforts to reach out to groups that aren't necessarily part of the traditional Republican base. How will you and the internet play a role in that?
Every study that comes out shows that young people are the most active online. Certainly, it's the older person that is more reliable, historically, as a voter, and a more historically reliable giver of donations online. For, Sen. Cruz, our average online donor was 55 [years old]. Our most active person for Sen. Cruz was the Tea Party grandma— women 65 and older. So, certainly older people can be active, but I see Sen. Paul as even being able to do more.
Its just numbers. Young people, I believe, are very in tune with Senator Paul's message—they are all online. This new generation coming to vote, those people are using the internet as their number one source of information. Certainly, I think Sen. Paul has a message that is going to resonate even more to the online community—folks that are concerned about their privacy, folks that are concerned about security, and just naturally, people that are younger and that want the government out of their lives.
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