An empty ballroom set up for the start of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Md. on the morning of Feb. 26, 2015.
Mark Peterson—Redux for TIME
By Sam Frizell
February 26, 2015

Conservative organizers hope to overcome a crucial shortfall in digital savvy and voter reach ahead of the 2016 election by taking a page out of President Obama’s winning campaign playbook.

“We can do better on the center-right at moving people to the polls before they close,” said Ned Ryun the founder of American Majority, a political action committee that focuses on local organizing. “If you’re going to turn out a sophisticated, targeted campaign, look at the last three elections.”

Ryun was one of many GOP activists at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington D.C. who huddled in training rooms Wednesday to plan a strategy that will build local campaign infrastructure and social media strategies in order to get voters to the polls.

Organizers pointed to several Democratic outreach strategies as effective models. Building local support based on meticulous electronic data election was something “the Obama campaign did very well in 2012,” Ryun added. Conservatives also said they envy Democrats efforts to target unregistered voters and convince voters to go to the polls.

Part of the advantage comes from more focus by progressives and the Democratic party on training frontline organizers and campaign staff in the latest tools of the trade. This is the first year CPAC is hosting its own “activism boot camp,” modeled in large part on boot camps held by progressive groups such s the New Organizing Institute. The aim is to broaden the GOP’s reach by training organizers in social media, research for negative ads and targeting voters.

In recent years on the presidential level, the disparity has been stark. The Obama 2012 campaign’s sophisticated voter targeting and data-driven approach to getting out the vote applied a level of technical sophistication the Romney campaign lacked. Obama volunteers knocked on over 7 million doors on election day, using complex data to target voters, according to a 2012 Obama campaign report. That compares with Romney’s 1 million door knocks, Ryun said.

The Romney campaign also did a “very poor” job in establishing a campaign infrastructure, said Ryun. “The emphasis of the Romney campaign on infrastructure and the get out the vote that should have been there, was not there.” Much of the conservative effort will also be focused on attacking Democratic candidates. The research arm of America Rising, a GOP-friendly super PAC that combs opposition candidates’ public records to inform critical advertisements, has been investigating Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton’s background since 2013.

During a presentation on Wednesday, Geoff Embler, vice president at American Rising, quoted the campaign manager for the 2008 Obama campaign David Plouffe, who said in 2012, “nowadays, if it doesn’t have a video component, it doesn’t really go anywhere.” “That is a philosophy we’ve really taken to heart,” Embler said his group, which is known for extensively culling video to run ads against opponents.

Democrats have tended to use Twitter and Facebook more fluently than GOP organizers, building campaigns around hashtags and effective Facebook posts. There are limits though to mimicking Obama’s 2012 strategy, organizers said. “You can’t run a social media campaign in 2016 just based on what Obama did in 2012 or you’ll get crushed,” American Majority national executive director Matt Batzel said. “It’s innovate or die.”

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