Even if Republicans catch up on data, they’ll still be behind on talent

December 16, 2013

Conferencegoers at RootsCamp 2010 assemble at the Wall, where the agenda is constantly updated with new sessions. (redmum)

One of President Obama's secret weapons in the 2012 election was a more sophisticated suite of digital tools for identifying and mobilizing voters. Thanks to digital infrastructure built in the months before the election, Obama's foot soldiers knew exactly who to target and how. In contrast, the Romney campaign's digital infrastructure collapsed under pressure on election day.

Liberal activists laying the groundwork for the 2014 and 2016 elections hope to preserve their technological edge in those elections. But they say that over the long term, their real strength lies in meatspace — in the army of technically savvy progressives and an assembly line that constantly churns out new talent.

Liberals gathered this weekend at RootsCamp, an annual Washington confab on digital strategy. And they were keenly aware that without the people to build the models and run the tests, 2012 might well have stalled. More importantly, these organizers believe, the left cultivates a network of non-profits that functions both as a training ground for people and a proving ground for new online techniques.

One conservative was invited to speak at RootsCamp, and he said that convincing the right to devote more attention to human resources has been a struggle.

"I've been trying to burst that bubble pretty aggressively," said Patrick Ruffini, the former digital organizer for the Republican National Committee, before an audience of progressives. "In terms of dramatizing it for our side, there are four times as many people on your side doing this stuff."

Republicans have poured vast resources into building a one-stop shop for data. Ahead of the recent governor's race in Virginia, RNC political director Chris McNulty boasted to supporters that the party had amassed "twice as many data points" on the electorate compared to the same point in 2012.

But if technology is becoming a crucial component of campaigning, Republicans still lack a coherent way to make it really useful. Partly, it's an issue of not being able to get rid of people who aren't on board, said Ruffini. And it's partly that the pipeline for talent is still immature. (For a more detailed conservative self-diagnosis, this Twitter thread explains a lot.)

That's not to say it doesn't exist. The Leadership Institute (LI) is a right-leaning organization that says it's trained 137,000 conservatives since its inception in 1979. It offers periodic courses in social media, grassroots campaigning and fundraising. But given that Internet organizing is still relatively new, it's likely that only a fraction of those that LI has trained actually boast the digital skills that made Obama for America so effective.

LI's own materials acknowledge the right's weakness on training:

While many liberal organizations exist to increase the involvement of liberal activists, few similar organizations exist to serve conservatives. Because conservatism tends to focus on the power of ideas, most conservative organizations are think tanks that focus on policy or legislation. The left excels at organizing and mobilizing large numbers of people — activating them in the public policy process. While philosophy is very important, the lack of widespread, active conservative participation is one of America's greatest practical weaknesses.

Even if Republicans stand up an effective set of tools to leverage data and analytics in the next go-around, liberals say the right's shortage of capable organizers will help Democrats maintain their technological edge.

"They can come and learn about our new models at RootsCamp," said Evan Sutton, whose outfit, the New Organizing Institute, convened the conference. "But until they have a distributed network of people at campaigns across the country that can implement the learning, they're going to continue to be behind."

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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