Some Republican presidential contenders have tried to start early to address this imbalance with Silicon Valley fundraisers and appearances at tech events. Rand Paul has opened a campaign office in the Bay Area, and Carly Fiorina recently appeared at TechCrunch’s Disrupt conference in New York. But much of the Republican effort to tap into a zeitgeist consumed with tech has been rhetorical—candidates from Ted Cruz and Rand Paul to Jeb Bush have all invoked words like “disruption” on the campaign trail to rebrand themselves as tech-friendly.
However, Global Strategy Group’s recent research reveals that the politics of disruption offers no quick fix for the Republican Party. The language of disruption is misunderstood by the broader public and has the potential to alienate many voters. Meanwhile, the underlying meaning of disruption – innovative change that challenges tradition and the status quo – is more aligned with the Democratic brand than the Republican one. In sum, it will take more than rhetoric for the Republican Party to “disrupt” the existing political allegiances of Millennials and the tech community.
Candidates Should Be Wary of Confusing an Appetite for Change with a Desire for a “Disruptive” Candidate
Candidates across both parties are certainly correct to diagnose a dissatisfaction with the status quo in Washington D.C. – most voters (65%) are dissatisfied with how government works (Gallup, 2014 Poll).
But using the word “disruptive” in the political arena—to suggest a candidate will change Washington in the same way tech giants have reshaped industries—fails to convey the desired message. Without context, the public considers the term “disruptive” an overwhelmingly negative one (12% positive/88% negative). Even words like “radical” and “provocative” are seen as more positive in comparison.
Specifically, when “disruptive” is invoked for public figures, the label is often associated with politicians whom voters dislike. For example, Republicans are much more likely to describe Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as “disruptive” than they would Rand Paul or Ted Cruz—both of whom are vying to be perceived as disruptors within the Republican Party.
With Proper Context, the Term “Disruptive” Can be Seen in a Positive Light
Part of the problem is that the tech communities’ use of the words “disrupt” and “disruptive,” while in vogue among techies and media elite—the words appear in more than 500 TED talks, according to one NPR analysis—have yet to filter down to the general public, whether Democrat or Republican.
Indeed, when framed correctly the word “disruptive” can shed its negative connotations and be used effectively. After being provided a definition of disruptive companies, which describes them as challenging “the leaders of an existing industry by introducing a new business model or technology that provides customers with a product or service that addresses an unmet need, is more affordable, or more convenient,” a majority of the public express a favorable view of the term (59% positive/41% negative) and say it would be a “good thing to disrupt” a wide array of industries and other areas of life (see our infographic for more on this). Still, it is worth noting that 41% of Americans remain negative toward this term even after hearing this very positive description.
Republicans Face Steep Challenges in Appealing to the Tech Community
Even with context, Republicans face challenges casting themselves as the party of the tech community. Not only are conservatives less favorable towards disruption than their liberal counterparts—57% conservatives are favorable towards the term, while 68% of liberals are (see above)—but Republicans themselves are skeptical of their own party’s record on this issue.
When asked which party would be more likely to advocate for policies that help disruptive companies, 49% of Republicans and 69% of Democrats agree that Democrats would be more likely to:
This may be due to the fact that disruption is linked to notions of future change, open-mindedness, and giving voice to Millennials—progressive notions that may appeal to liberals. At the same time, opponents of disruption often appeal to reactionary notions – stability, preservation of traditions, etc.—that appeal to conservative values.
The finding comes despite—or perhaps because of—Republicans’ reputation as allies of business. Disruptive companies, which thrive based on the premise that existing financial and structural trends should be challenged in the future, seek to upend established incumbents in their industries. In this sense, Democrats’ openness to new ideas and changes to the status quo make the party well-suited for the tech communities’ sensibilities.
Tech Jargon from Republicans Won’t Convince Millennials to Abandon Democrats
Much of the political focus on the tech community derives from the importance of Millennial voters. But there is little indication that the use of tech buzzwords will be enough for Rand Paul, Carly Fiorina, and other Republicans to make inroads among the kinds of Millennial voters that helped elect Barack Obama.
Not only do words like “disruption” fail to register among the public with their intended meaning, but the real problem—Republicans’ unpopularity among Millennials, difficulty attracting Silicon Valley donations, and struggles recruiting tech talent on campaigns—stems from concerns beyond the rhetorical. Among Millennial voters, more than half tilt Democratic, while only a third lean Republican (Pew Research Center April 2015).
Democrats’ advantages with the tech community have deep-rooted origins and are primarily the result of a commitment to engage and represent their views. By leading on issues such as legalizing same-sex marriage, mitigating climate change, and fairness for undocumented immigrants, Democrats have both welcomed Millennial voters into the party and empowered them to shape it. As long as Republicans refuse to address more fundamental concerns, a Republican shift in rhetoric will fail to register with both Millennials and the tech community.
Nick Gourevitch is an Executive Vice President and Managing Director at Global Strategy Group (GSG), a public affairs firm, where he leads the firm’s research practice and serves as a pollster on political, corporate, and advocacy campaigns across the country.
Sophia Yeres is an Associate in GSG’s Research Practice specializing in Millennial politics.