Rahm Emanuel famously said in November 2008, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” The clarifying context, which is less well-known, continues: “It’s an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.”
In 2020, with the global COVID-19 pandemic, campaigners have been thrust into just such a crisis during a presidential election year. The disruption caused by social distancing and other measures meant to slow the spread has had wide-reaching effects beyond just politics.
While political orthodoxies surrounding national party conventions, political rallies, fundraising, canvassing, and voter contact are being challenged – perhaps with lasting impact – there are far too many opportunities for improvement being squandered.
The Republican Party of Virginia offers political innovators a case study in these missed opportunities.
Activists in the state have stubbornly held on to the Jim Crow-era system for selecting candidates for public office in closed conventions. In recent decades, as civic participation has plummeted, local media has evaporated, and winning elections requires increasingly larger data sets, these conventions are becoming less and less effective at nominating successful candidates.
Proponents of conventions contend that in a state without party registration, these gatherings are the only way to ensure Republicans nominate Republican candidates. Additionally, ranked-choice voting through multiple rounds of balloting is usually better at selecting a consensus candidate than a simple first past the post primary.
But with such large, in-person gatherings imprudent at best, and illegal at worst, Virginia Republicans have been forced to get creative. Other state parties, faced with the same challenge, have turned to technology with the help of Voter Science, a Startup Caucus portfolio company, which rapidly deployed a platform for secure, online voting in a convention setting.
So far, Republicans in Washington state, Minnesota, and Oklahoma have used this software to conduct successful – not to mention far more efficient – conventions in their states. Unfortunately in Virginia, a small but vocal group of activists has resisted such a basic innovation in favor of conventions’ worst feature, which is exclusion, with disastrous results.
In Virginia’s 5th Congressional District, which is larger than the entire state of New Jersey, some voters had to drive more than four hours round trip to participate in a “drive-through convention” entailing lengthy lines of idling vehicles.
Just this weekend, in the neighboring 7th district, a must-win seat in Republicans’ effort to regain a majority in the House of Representatives, a few thousand Republican die-hards had to endure scorching temperatures for three rounds of balloting lasting several hours to participate in a walk-up convention.
By opting against an innovative solution to recreate the convention experience via widely-used technology, Republicans squandered an invaluable opportunity to modernize their stale and ineffective nominating conventions. November’s election results will tell whether or not this was a critical mistake.
But for those of us who are working to innovate campaigns and our electoral process, Virginia’s failure offers a worthwhile case study.
First, always question conventional wisdom (no pun intended). It’s widely believed for a reason because at one time it worked, but as circumstances evolve, old methods, practices, and customs must constantly be reevaluated.
When assumptions are frequently challenged through the lens of innovation, old paradigms break apart and new paths forward emerge. In Virginia, where the debate has long been stagnant between those who support conventions and those who favor primaries, a virtual convention offers a unique third way that advances both sides beyond their entrenched positions and combines the best features of each system.
Second, prepare for opportunities before they happen. Voter Science didn’t know that a global pandemic was going to disrupt political conventions, but they did anticipate the inevitability of disruption. Consequently, their platform was nimble and extensible enough to implement a solution that addressed the challenges state parties faced under COVID-19.
And third, innovative solutions, if they’re to be effective, must incorporate and improve upon the best elements of the status quo that can be retained. This requires familiarity with the subject matter and it’s how the Voter Science team’s virtual convention software-enabled state parties to faithfully recreate the convention experience online.
Finally, innovation is an ongoing process. COVID-19 disrupted large gatherings like state party conventions this year, but circumstances will be different four years from now. What are the components of a virtual convention organizers will want to keep when we can meet in person again?
With these four lessons, political innovators have a template for continuing to advance and improve our campaigns and elections.
Eric Wilson is the Managing Partner of Startup Caucus, an investment fund and accelerator for Republican campaign technology.