WASHINGTON — The 1 million-member National Association of Realtors is a heavyweight in national politics.
But political campaigns aren’t won like they used to be.
Just as in real estate, social media and data analytics have changed the way campaigns are run today, according to political strategists speaking Tuesday at NAR’s midyear conference, the Realtors Legislative Meetings & Trade Expo.
Ed Gillespie, chair of the Republican National Committee, ran for a U.S. Senate seat in Virginia in the fall, losing by a mere 0.8 percentage-point margin to Democrat Mark Warner.
Gillespie, a former counselor to President George W. Bush, credited his almost-victory to social media. Despite being heavily outspent, he was able to gain momentum through Facebook and Twitter, he said.
“Social media was a great equalizer for me,” Gillespie told conference attendees this morning.
“I lost by less than four votes per precinct,” he added.
Social media has had a big impact in the political and governing processes, Gillespie said.
“People tweet their political views,” and that can have a polarizing effect, just like cable news and talk radio, he said.
Social media impacts everything, said Donna Brazile, the Democratic National Committee’s vice chair of voter registration and participation.
“Today you just can’t like your jambalaya; your friends have to like it, too,” she said half-jokingly.
“If a tree falls in the forest and it’s not on Tumblr, it doesn’t make an impact.”
Social media is part of today’s 24-hour news cycle, she said, joking that if there were a 23-hour news cycle, “all kinds of awful things would be happening during that off hour.”
Communication and fundraising have always been a big part of political campaigns, but now data and analytics are playing a big role, she said.
“Campaigns have literally changed. It’s like a science. [Campaigns have to ask] ‘What’s the data showing us, where are people moving,'” she said.
But Gillespie — who said he and Brazile were “frenemies” — disagreed somewhat, noting that polls preceding recent elections in the United Kingdom and the U.S. had been less than accurate.
“More and more, we are seeing that politics really is more art than science,” Gillespie said.
Regardless, both political parties will have to confront a huge barrier in next year’s federal elections: voter apathy.
“In 2014, we had one of the lowest turnouts in 70 years, and that’s a problem,” Brazile said.
“Two-thirds of the electorate were sitting home. People feel disconnected. They don’t see how politics impact their lives. They don’t see politicians engaging them. This Congress was elected by 17 percent of the American people. People aren’t participating — that is the greatest danger to our democracy.”
Voter fraud — a concern voiced by one conference attendee — is “a minor problem compared to the major problem of people opting out,” she added.
Between $7 billion and $8 billion will be spent in this election cycle, Gillespie said. A lot of that money will be spent figuring out which Realtors did not vote in the last election and getting them to vote, he said.
He noted that ads can now be targeted to the individual, not just his or her demographic.
Brazile predicted that the next president would be someone who was able to win the hearts and minds of the voters on a personal level.
“People will have to stand up and say, ‘I’m with Hillary [Clinton]’ or ‘I’m with Bernie [Sanders]’ or ‘I’m with Martin [O’Malley] or ‘I’m with Joe [Biden],” Brazile said.
When they do, they’ll want to be able to say, “I had coffee with her” or him, she said.
“That matters in politics. What I try to tell the kids is don’t forget that human touch. Relationships matter,” the Georgetown University professor said.
People are not hungry for someone who fits a particular demographic, Brazile said. “They’re hungry for someone who believes in them.”
Gillespie agreed, noting that the Iowa primaries would be “a great winnower.”
“[Iowa voters] poke you and they prod you and they want to have breakfast with you,” he said.
Only Independent Bernie Sanders has so far challenged Hillary Clinton for the Democratic ticket. There are more Democrats supporting Clinton than any other nonincumbent presidential candidate at this point in the process, Brazile said.
By contrast, the Republican bench seems to be growing by the day with more than a dozen possible contenders. Gillespie was hesitant to name any frontrunners, but said Jeb Bush, Scott Walker and Marco Rubio appear to be leading in the polls.
The GOP will have to overcome demographic challenges in the next election and pull from what Gillespie called “the Obama coalition”: women, young people, people of color.
“We have to do better … and I believe we will,” Gillespie said.
“We will have a nominee who will help us appeal to a broader swath of the electorate than Gov. Romney was able to do. It’s about survival.”
In his own campaign, he spent a lot of time in places Republicans don’t typically go, he said, including black churches and cultural events held by various ethnic groups. His campaign literature was translated into seven different languages. That, in addition to social media, gave him an edge on an incumbent, he said.
Democrats have their own historical precedent to deal with as well: Post-World War II, no political party has held the White House for more than three terms, except for when Republican George H.W. Bush was elected after Ronald Reagan served two terms.
“I don’t believe this is going to be the year we’re going to break that historical pattern. It’s very difficult for either party to get three terms,” Gillespie said.
He expects the Democratic field to get bigger, though he predicts Clinton will still be the nominee.
“Whether it is in real estate or in politics, where there is unmet demand, supply will rise to meet it,” he said.
“I believe there is demand for her to be challenged.”
Both strategists noted that it will be tough for the Democrats to retake the House of Representatives in 2016.
Due to redistricting, 380 of the 435 seats are not competitive during the general election, Gillespie said. Where they are competitive, they are competitive in the primaries. That means candidates have less of an incentive to cater to moderate voters, which leads to further polarization, he said.
“The most liberal Republican is to the right of the most conservative Democrat. There aren’t many conservative Democrats and there aren’t many liberal Republicans,” he said.
Despite congressional gridlock, he expects Congress to pass legislation having to do with the Highway Trust Fund, authorization of military use against ISIS, and possibly criminal justice reform this year. But prospects for immigration reform — an issue near and dear to some Realtors’ hearts — are nonexistent in this presidential cycle, Gillespie said.