NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Amethyst Archer probably wasn’t the targeted audience for the campaign boot camp held on the eve of the Conservative Political Action Conference, but the presenters made it clear the right needs all the help it can get in 2016 and beyond.
The Tulsa, Okla., resident is just 12 years old, and was the youngest of the few hundred activists and operatives — ranging from college students to senior citizens — who sat in for at least a portion of CPAC’s first-ever basic training for running effective, modern campaigns. On Wednesday, the day before the festivities kicked off at a conference known for its late-night parties, boot-camp attendees were informed they'd need to stay until the end to receive the after-party admittance wristband and a chance to meet Ben Carson, a conservative favorite and poised-to-be presidential candidate.
What they heard in the four-hour course, run by the conservative grass-roots organizing group American Majority, was that the Obama campaign’s ground game in 2012 was unrivaled and Democrats have a leg up from the local to national level.
“My hope is ... to start emphasizing more the training, the equipping,” said Ned Ryun, the CEO of both American Majority and database technology company Voter Gravity. “It’s one thing to have good ideas, but unless you’re putting in place a systematic approach to action and equipping people to be successful ... all we’re doing is having nice conversations about good ideas.”
Ryun, son of former Republican Rep. Jim Ryun of Kansas, originally hoped to bring in his top technologists from Voter Gravity for an advanced training on topics such as proper database structure. He opted to simply cover the basics.
His presentation on get-out-the-vote and database technology highlighted the number of volunteer staging locations, newly registered voters and other impressive ground-game data points where the Obama campaign dominated Mitt Romney in 2012. Ryun emphasized the importance of data integration in a campaign’s field operation — including volunteer organization, voter information collection and door-knocking walk lists — and said it’s frustrating “how many people still use paper and pen.”
Attendees, who at times lined the walls of the ballroom, also got a crash course in fundraising, opposition research, social media fundamentals and how to get on TV. Geoff Embler of the GOP-aligned America Rising highlighted the research firm’s work against 2014 Iowa Senate candidate Bruce Braley and noted it began doing homework on Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2013.
With a couple of presentations to go, one student had seen enough, and the lure of Carson couldn't keep him there. “Nobody interests me enough that it merits me staying here until 5:30 to get a wristband,” he said to his neighbor before walking out of the room. Forty-five minutes later, former cable TV booker Peter Zorich started the final presentation of the afternoon by noting he and his partner were “the Ben Carson warmup show.”
Despite the time commitment, many of the folks crammed behind a dozen rows of tables or in chairs along the back and side walls took notes on Gaylord hotel notepads, asked questions and appeared genuinely interested in picking up tips on running a successful campaign.
Dede Laugesen, who has managed campaigns in Colorado, relished it and said, “There’s not enough networking we can do in this field.”
At the after-party in a similar-looking ballroom across the hall, “deluxe cocktails” went for $12.50, domestic beer ran about as much as one would pay at Nationals Park and no one checked for wristbands. Carson popped in one of the doors and spoke for 10 minutes before exiting to the hallway within a massive scrum of selfie-seekers.
“Can you hear me in the back?” Carson asked at a decibel too low to permeate the expansive room filled with imbibing conference-goers. “I can’t talk any louder than this. This is my actual volume.”
Rhode Island GOP Secretary Dave Talan, who lost to now-Rep. David Cicilline in the 2002 Providence mayoral race, said he was “amazed” at how many people attended the boot camp on the day before the presidential candidates would grace the main ballroom stage. He said he was glad he did, even if not all of the social-media-networking tips hit home.
“There’s always something new you can learn when you’re involved in politics,” said Talan, 66, who added he wouldn’t give Facebook a penny to promote one of his posts.
When you’re 12, of course, there’s plenty to soak up. With her grandparents in tow, Archer said she met with Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford and her congressman, Rep. Jim Bridenstine, on Capitol Hill over the past couple days before attending part of the training and snapping a photo of Carson.
She’s not sure yet whether she’ll grow up to be a candidate or to run campaigns, but Archer asked her grandfather, Ken Malloy of Richmond, Va. — a friend and former colleague of Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., at Randolph-Macon College — to bring her to CPAC this year.
"I think that this is an attempt for the right to start to grow up a little bit, if you will, and to use tools that are much more effective with her generation," Malloy said, pointing to his granddaughter. "I mean, when I go to tea parties, to be honest with you everyone is over 40."
In 2012, before Archer was really into politics, her friends promoted Obama on Instagram — in her estimation, it was simply a reflection of their parents’ views. With Carson still being mobbed a few yards away, Archer urged her post-millennial peers to think for themselves and act.
“I really think people my age should really get involved," Archer said. "Our generation should really have our own mind. We shouldn’t just go off what our parents say. We should watch the news and have our own opinion about what’s going on in the world.”
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