How the GOP’s new campaign tech helped win a tight race in Florida

 

"WE WON."

That's the subject line Republicans saw the morning after David Jolly beat Democrat Alex Sink in Florida's high-profile special election for a U.S. House seat on Tuesday. The e-mail itself had all the hallmarks of a sophisticated digital campaign: Selectively bolded text, tactical use of primary colors, a call to action at the bottom.

To voters, it was merely another in a long string of campaign e-mails. But for the strategists who wrote the e-mail, it marked the end of a critical test for the party.

Republicans openly admit having been bested by President Obama's savvy microtargeting and analytics team in the 2012 election. Ever since, the right has been playing catch-up — trying to understand how to apply voter data to political campaigns in a digital age.

On Wednesday, GOP officials said the Florida race was the most comprehensive demonstration of their new approach yet. The effort included the use of computer models to pinpoint and reach likely Republican supporters; a mobile app that gave canvassers customized scripts to use while going door-to-door; and an API that let volunteers update voter records from the field. Top Republicans dream of offering that package of data and services to all conservative campaigns in the future.

It's the first time that the Republican National Committee has deployed all of its new tools in one race. RNC chief digital officer Chuck DeFeo says the test proved how accurate the system can be.

"One thing we haven’t released yet — the RNC set a vote goal" with the model, DeFeo said. "We felt Jolly needed 89,514 votes. He won with 89,099 votes. ... The power here is, we were using multiple methods of communicating to a specific universe of people we knew would help reach our goal.”


This Nov. 23, 2013 file photo shows Florida Republican Congressional candidate David Jolly, right, speaking in Indian Rocks Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Steve Nesius, File)

Florida is a state that tends to vote early and by absentee ballot. So as soon as Jolly won the Republican nomination, GOP strategists went to work identifying people who'd requested absentee ballots and trying to predict — using a tool the GOP calls RNC Foresight — how likely they were to vote. They used information from Data Trust, the RNC's external data warehouse, to find out who might be susceptible to messaging. Organizers waged an "aggressive" e-mail campaign targeting those people, according to DeFeo, and they customized their outreach efforts according to each voter. If those interactions produced new data on those people, it was logged and uploaded back to the database. Every person's characteristics added up to a "voter score" that estimated his or her propensity to vote. Coordinating the information was RNC Control Panel — a dashboard that made information more easily available to organizers in the field.

These tactics are nothing new for Democrats. Obama had been using voter scores as early as 2008 to determine a voter's likelihood of supporting the then-senator. So in some ways, the GOP's experiment in Florida merely brings the party up to speed.

Republican officials say it's too early to tell what future lessons, if any, can be drawn from the test. But they pointed to the fact that Tuesday's contest was a close one — Jolly won by a roughly 3,400-vote margin in a district that had broken for Obama in both 2008 and 2012. As Slate's Dave Weigel notes, Sink and her supporters had also outspent Jolly and his own. Despite beginning at a disadvantage, Republicans nevertheless came away with a win — one that's likely to bolster the party's confidence in data and analytics.

The experiment is also likely to soothe conservatives who feared what until now had been a months-long silence from the RNC on its new data platform.

"I have a dozen clients with primary elections in two months, and early voting starts in two weeks. If I were waiting for people sitting inside the Beltway for marching orders, I wouldn't have done anything yet," GOP strategist Vincent Harris told Reuters last month. "We have had to do this ourselves without a lot of help from the establishment."

Other consultants and strategists have privately echoed that anxiety, claiming that the RNC is running out of time to roll out the technological upgrades. RNC officials, meanwhile, were quick to downplay the criticism.

"It's March," said DeFeo. "A lot of the campaigns are just ramping up themselves. It's a little early in the cycle for anyone to make those kinds of statements. We are proactively reaching out to campaigns and vendors so we can all work together to make our products — and in turn, our candidates — better."

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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