Vincent Harris, 26-year-old GOP digital savant, wheels his black 2014 BMW 381 away from the curb of my Austin hotel, Lana Del Ray blasting on the stereo. We’re on our way from Austin to Waco so he can teach a political science class at Baylor University—his alma mater—and he’s explaining the complexities of his personality, the ones that have made him a very rare creature, both coveted and controversial, in the Republican universe. He made his name by making Ted Cruz’s name in his longest-of-long-shots 2012 Senate primary race, as well as by working for a passel of other well-known conservative GOPers. But he presents as a well-heeled Austin hipster, and some of the things that come out of his mouth—he can’t stand Fox News, for instance—make him seem almost ... Democratic. Now Harris is involved in the seemingly oxymoronic activity of coolifying Mitch McConnell. Along the way, he’s issued some very public critiques of the way the rest of the GOP relates to tech, and to millennials.
“People used to call me ‘pastor’ at Baylor because I took my faith so seriously, and then I’d be out a fraternity party,” Harris says of his undergraduate days. “I don’t know if it means I’m a contradiction or that it means I’m a person and you can’t box people in. You can’t box people in based on their views or their religion or anything. I think people are very complicated.”
This is funny, of course, because knowing how best to place people in boxes is precisely what has brought Harris to the epicenter of Republican politics. In his hands, the candidates’ views are tweaked and condensed to fit into those modern equivalents of sound bites—tweets and gifs. The words chosen to appeal to donors are determined by the categories those donors fall into, with different messages and even e-mail subject lines sent to, say, the 30-year-old unmarried Jewish woman from the city and the 60-year-old rancher about to become a grandfather. And, of course, everyone knows about soccer moms and NASCAR dads, or more recent classification attempts based on a love of Cracker Barrel, Whole Foods, or Starbucks. Decisions about how to reach people quite literally come down to which boxes—on database forms, on Facebook’s advertising interface, on clipboards during door-to-door campaign visits—get checked or clicked.
“Of course you make wedges,” he says, biting into the peppered egg that is his breakfast on his Paleo diet. “You know men who are married and religious are gonna vote Republican if they’re Protestant. You know those things. And I do vote Republican and I’m married and I’m Protestant. Do most people who go to Vegas for Katy Perry concerts vote Republican? I don’t know, probably not.”
He’s also spent his young career publicly lambasting his own party and some of its top campaign operatives for their digital ineptitude. In a single New York Times Magazine piece examining the GOP online failures after the 2012 election, Harris called the Romney effort headed up by Zac Moffatt of rival firm Targeted Victory “a very insular, closed operation,” wondered aloud why the Democrats are so much better at this—“David Axelrod has to be the same age as Karl Rove, right?”—and said the Republican National Committee operation is “second rung.” And that’s just what he’s said on the record.
Were Harris any less talented or the GOP any more successful in the 2012 cycle, he could have easily been dismissed. Washington-based GOP operatives, in fact, tried their best to dissuade McConnell from hiring him, former McConnell campaign adviser Jesse Benton says.
Benton prevailed on McConnell in January 2013 to bring on Harris anyway, a move that cleared the way for other Republican A-listers to do the same. Harris Media is producing web ads and fundraising appeals in New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Alaska for the National Republican Senatorial Committee this year; Louisiana Senator David Vitter and Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer have him on board for their 2015 gubernatorial campaigns; and Senator Rob Portman inked a deal with him to manage the digital side of his re-election—or is it presidential?—campaign in 2016.
“He’s very smart, he’s very creative, and he’s an entrepreneur,” says Texas State Senator Dan Patrick, whose lieutenant governor’s campaign Harris is handling. “He’ll be in high demand for people who are running for president. There’ll be a bidding war.”
Harris, however, is living in the moment—he laughs off questions about whether Portman or Cruz is running for the White House. He bobbles his drink and his iPhone 5s as he pulls the car onto Texas State Highway 130. This, he notes, is the only toll road in America with a 85 mph speed limit. “We’re going to go 95, though,” he grins.
Harris’s vivid generational signifiers are a crucial part of his own personal marketing.
They make a point about the people the GOP has to reach, and where the GOP has to go. His mission has not been to re-invent the digital campaign—the Democrats have been doing it well for several cycles now—so much as to drag his side, the Republican side, into the future.
“People now spend an average of 3.9 hours a day watching television and 3.8 hours online outside work,” he says. “By 2016, that’ll flip, people will spend more time online. On mobile devices, people spend an average of 45 seconds on someone’s website! How do you get someone to stay for longer than 45 seconds? That’s what’s transforming politics. Everything has to be pithy, everything has to be short, everything has to be succinct. That’s what I’m here to do.”
Much like what has happened in journalism and other businesses, the digital campaign is becoming the backbone of every element of the operation, a tail that wags the dog. In the case of McConnell—a marquee example that Harris hopes will serve as a new model—he junked the senator’s old database software and replaced it with a new system of managing lists of potential voters, donors, and volunteers. He’s created new methods for keeping track of how well or badly voters have responded to phone calls, e-mails, and mailers. And he’s got a 24/7 social media operation—the 2014 answer to the war room.
Mitch McConnell, of course, presents an Augean Stables-sized challenge to someone like Harris. Can McConnell really be made comprehensible to 25 year olds? Can Harris’s techniques work on anybody? “I think in politics, yes—good consultants can take candidates and mold them, find out what their passions are, and find out how to package them in ways that win votes,” he says.
Harris got to work quickly in early 2013. That April at the White House Correspondents Association dinner, President Barack Obama mocked the idea of having a drink with McConnell. Within days, Harris’ team hastily rushed the senator to a bar at Churchill Downs for a photo of McConnell with a beer and an empty bar stool. To complete the picture, on the bar by the empty stool is a dainty glass of red wine, a clever dig at Obama’s effete, elitist image. “Well played, Mitch,” wrote Buzzfeed’s Dorsey Shaw when posting the image, which started a meme in which McConnell supporters began posting images of themselves at bars with the senator.
Days later, more than 1 million visitors to Churchill Downs on the weekend of the Kentucky Derby were treated to a gauzy 80-second welcome video narrated by McConnell and served through apps and websites to their mobile devices. By summer, a viral, somewhat bizarre YouTube video with the grating-but-memorable ditty “What Rhymes With Alison Lundergan Grimes?” drew so much press interest that Grimes responded with her own ad wondering, with the help of her grandmother, what rhymes with “Mitch.”
Harris is the first to admit it’s not clear whether elections are won or lost by such moments. They do, however, make campaigns more interesting, more entertaining, and more social, all of which is of intangible yet indispensable value.
And, in a typically millennial way, Harris is happy to self-publicize. “The entire McConnell operation is a presidential-level operation and the McConnell digital data operation is a presidential-level operation,” he tells me, in the mildly twangy, not-quite-Southern suburban Virginia accent of his upbringing. “There is no doubt what is going on could and should be replicated by potential presidential candidates. It is incredibly sophisticated, there is a huge staff that is paying constant attention. Every time the senator or his opponent say anything, it’s potential grist for Facebook ads, viral videos, or e-mail fundraising appeals. That’s new for Republicans.”
Harris formed his consultancy, Harris Media, in his dorm room in 2008, and managed the web and social media operations during the 2010 cycle for Allen West, Rick Scott, and Linda McMahon, but it was his decision to work for Ted Cruz in early 2011 that vaulted him to a new level.
At the time, Cruz was an obscure, Tea Party-inspired corporate lawyer with little money and no name recognition, plotting a run for the GOP nomination to fill the seat being vacated by Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. The presumed nominee was Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, an establishment figure whom Cruz saw as insufficiently conservative.
Cruz’s campaign manager, John Drogin, knew Harris from some digital work he’d done for the cakewalk 2010 re-election of Senator John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas. Drogin brought Harris to meet Cruz at the 2011 CPAC convention in Washington, D.C. The candidate, himself only 40 and digitally savvy, “got it immediately,” Harris says. “He just trusted me.”
Harris had Cruz announce his run for the Senate first on a conference call with Texas bloggers, then to the world via Twitter, a departure from the standard-issue news conference in front of a house or government building. Next, Cruz held weekly calls with supportive bloggers and hired two full-time staffers to focus on creating social media content. Tweets, Facebook posts, and emails received personal replies. A microsite, cruzcrew.org, empowered volunteers to take on tasks and print out campaign literature. Targeted Facebook and Google ads tied to specific web searches or Facebook “likes” helped build an email list of active Tea Party-leaning voters.
By July 2012, when Cruz beat Dewhurst in a runoff, his campaign e-mail list and social media followings were "bigger than most of the failed Republican candidates for president," Harris says.
“This campaign was unique because digital wasn’t done to check off a box. Digital led," says Harris, until fundraising made TV advertising possible. “I was on every call. I got all the access I ever needed. I can’t recall ever getting turned down for a budget request.”
From there, Harris’s reputation soared—which positioned him perfectly to be the GOP’s digital Cassandra, telling uncomfortable truths about the Romney campaign’s operations and the RNC’s blindness to the need to improve its data game. “They have no idea what they’re doing,” he told me that summer. “And they don’t even know what they don’t know.”
Had Romney won, Harris’ carping might have left him iced out of Republican establishment politics, perhaps stuck working mainly for the long shots and fringe players for another cycle. Instead, the former Massachusetts governor lost what many on the right saw as an eminently winnable presidential race, forcing the RNC to conduct a self-flagellating assessment of its failures. In the early months of 2013, Harris was among the digital strategists invited to provide input on how to fix the problems. Executive Director Reince Priebus’ announcement in April 2013 that the RNC would hire a new digital guru and funnel serious resources into its data operations was a bit of vindication for Harris.
“There are still problems in how Republican campaigns are structured,” he says now. “Things have gotten a lot better, certainly, but I think you have to be vocal to make changes. I know those articles and the attention did help fix things. If people weren’t frustrated, I don’t know that the RNC would be where they’re at today.”
Jesse Benton kept it from Harris at the time, but now acknowledges that he fought to bring Harris on board. “We heard some grumblings from some people when we hired him,” says Benton, who was, until August, McConnell’s campaign manager. “Some folks had questions about Vincent and whether he was a team player or not, who he was really out for. We didn’t have any doubt, and it’s a real credit to Senator McConnell that he was fine ruffling some feathers.”
Like many of the most passionate political professionals, Harris was struck young.
He was a pre-teen C-SPAN junkie, a kid who recorded Al Gore and George W. Bush’s convention acceptance speeches in 2000 to listen to for fun, a 12-year-old volunteer for a Virginia state delegate who is still a Harris Media client.
At 15, he stalked fairgrounds and Metro stations with then-Representative Tom Davis, a Republican representing his part of Northern Virginia. “I skipped school, mom would write sick notes,” he says. Working for Davis, Harris learned that politics was about attention, no matter how it was obtained. “I would make jokes like, ‘Here’s my elephant, Dumbo, eating peanuts’ or something like that. Whatever it took to engage voters.”
Around the same time he started with Davis, he began a blog, TooConservative.com, which he started anonymously as a 15-year-old and where he wrote extensively about Northern Virginia GOP politics. When he “came out” as its author at 17, “there were several people who refused to believe it,” says Sean Connaughton, then the county executive of Prince William County, Va., and a 2005 lieutenant governor candidate. “There was a thought that somebody was using him for cover, that there was a wizard behind the curtain.”
When Harris headed to Baylor—it was his Baylor-alum grandfather’s dying wish, and he wears the older man’s class ring—hs didn’t stop working on websites for candidates back in Virginia. His blog, in fact, landed him a gig as the Internet director for a Congressional candidate in Waco before classes started.
In 2007, the staff of Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee invited Harris to interview the nascent presidential contender for TooConservative when Huckabee was in the Dallas area, a meeting that both rocked Harris’s world and led to three months on Huckabee’s staff in Iowa. On a low-budget, dark-horse campaign like that, he recalls, he had ample opportunity to try out a variety of new-media tactics, making web videos and organizing conference calls with local bloggers.
“Everywhere the governor went across Iowa, it was my job to find him a blogger who wanted to do an interview with him,” he says. “At one point, the governor was talking to five or six people at Pizza Ranches, and we were happy with that, so any kind of press attention was important and our outreach to bloggers was helpful in getting the word out.”
If Harris weren’t so well-known as a conservative digital whisperer, it would be easy for his Baylor students not to know where Harris is coming from politically or even—gasp!—think him liberal.
At some point earlier in the term, for instance, he had offered a thought-provoking notion about the criminal justice system: Florida wouldn’t be a swing state—it’d be solidly Democratic, he figures—if the 1.5 million residents disenfranchised by criminal convictions could vote. During the lecture I witness, he refers to convicted former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, for whom he worked in 2009, and whom he still supports, as “the guy we talked about with the Rolex watch.” He talks hopefully about the value of term limits in perhaps upending the dominance of “old white-men lawyers in Congress.” And in explaining the various motivations for running for office, he admiringly offers up New York Representative Carolyn McCarthy, a Democrat, as an example of someone inspired to public service by a personal cause. (That cause, gun control, is not one Harris or any of his clients support.)
Harris may be over-correcting, although there’s little chance at conservative Baylor that anyone would begrudge his stacking up the anti-Democratic messages. Rather, this even-handedness is partly in pursuit of academic rigor and fairness, and partly a means of meeting students where they are—which is, on many issues, in a gray area. He wants his students to respect and understand ideas different from theirs, not instinctively rail against them, because that is the path to more respectful discourse, he says.
Like many in the GOP consultant class, he’s less ideologically predictable than his clients. He’s a Christian conservative fan of Britney Spears, for instance. He rarely watches Fox News because “I get tired of all the shouting and I get tired of all-the-time negativity.” Last month, when Fox anchors went into outrage mode over a New York high school principal banning a National Guard recruiter from handing out T-shirts printed with gun imagery, Harris cited the incident—as well as the uproar over Obama’s so-called “latte salute”—as examples of Fox’s “falsified outrage.”
The irony there is that so many of the win-the-day gifs and fundraising appeals generated by Harris Media are, in fact, cheap shots and oversimplifications. In fact, one of his associates told me, with much glee, about how her latte-salute Vine had gone viral. And even Harris concedes that Fox News is indispensable—because “whatever you’re seeing there, that’s what we need to be fundraising on.”
Harris’s professional fiefdom is a fourth-floor office in downtown Austin.
In one corner, a young woman ponders how to turn a remark over the weekend by Iranian president Hassan Rouhani in support of Hamas and Hezbollah into a gif that will help drive traffic to an advocacy group’s Facebook page. Nearby, a co-worker puts the finishing touches on a classic Concentration-style game in which each matching pair of cards offers a way Alison Lundergan Grimes agrees with President Obama.
This being the final day of September, there is also much chatter and keyboard clacking in service of end-of-the-quarter email fundraising appeals, mundane but crucial stuff like whether folks will be more likely to open a note from “Asa’s iPad” or “Asa Hutchinson (personal).”
Harris is older than almost all of his 21 employees, none of whom are yet 30. Some of their work is mundane—designing pretty websites and Facebook pages, crafting fundraising appeals, buying ads on Google.
But then there’s more momentous stuff. Take DewFeed, which a British newspaper called the first political attack ad animated by cat gifs. In August 2013, trying to build support for Texas State Senator Dan Patrick as Patrick aimed to knock off David Dewhurst, still the lieutenant governor, in the GOP primary, Harris conjured up the idea of a BuzzFeed spoof that used the Internet’s most popular animal diversions to castigate Dewhurst for not stopping State Senator Wendy Davis’ legendary filibuster against an anti-abortion measure. Patrick, who was initially nervous about whether such an approach would diminish him, was persuaded by Harris to take a gamble that ended up drawing copious press coverage and more than doubled his social media following.
“When he laid that out last August, I didn’t know what BuzzFeed was, I didn’t know what a gif was,” says Patrick, 64. “DewFeed was one of many things we did over the last 14 months. It wasn’t a game changer. It didn’t decide the election. Did it help? I think so. It’s hard to know.”
The aim of so much of the offbeat creative, certainly, is to show how digital can be a low-cost, highly effective conversation piece. The McConnell campaign has repeatedly benefited, but it’s also set a daunting precedent by plunging nearly 15 percent of its $30 million budget into digital and data management, Benton says.
That’s unheard of for a GOP Senate race, and for Republican campaigns to modernize more broadly, it is what the future must hold, Harris says.
“Digital people continue to get more and more important, but I can tell you we’re still held to a higher standard, expected to use the Internet as an ATM,” he says. “That’s not all we’re good for. It can’t be.”
Benton believes Harris may someday run entire campaigns rather than just ever-larger segments of them. Patrick predicts he’ll be a hot commodity among the 2016 Republican contenders.
“He’s that new generation of consultants who understand the communications tools that are coming online,” says Connaughton, whom Harris cites as a mentor. “It’s all about tying all of this together and communicating a message. Even as a young kid, he understood the basic mechanics and what we’re trying to do. This new media thing isn’t some black box sitting on the desk that you open up and great things happen. It has to be a part of the overall campaign and communications campaign. He’s a pioneer, so there’s a certain amount of professional pride in seeing those new tools used effectively.”