GOP’s new tech strategy leads to Silicon Valley in quest to ‘leapfrog’ Democrats
By Peter Wallsten,
The Republican Party is turning to the Democratic den of Silicon Valley to launch a start-up — laying plans to open a new office there and hire dozens of software developers tasked with reinventing the GOP’s technology operation for the 2014 midterm elections.
Officials say the multimillion-dollar program would give Republican candidates the ability to amass more detailed information than ever about individual voters. The data would help candidates narrowly tailor appeals for votes and money. The system would, in many ways, try to mimic many of the digital innovations that helped President Obama’s reelection campaign last year.
The move follows a scathing spring review by the Republican National Committee, which assailed the party and the campaign of its 2012 presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, for falling short in digital marketing and voter outreach. The report called for more “intellectual curiosity” and for party members to be “more sophisticated” with data and to improve collaboration. In short, it said, “Republicans do not do this very well.”
Although they’re behind, Republican officials say their new effort could at some point put them ahead of Democrats, who are assessing how to make the Obama campaign system available to other party candidates. The RNC program will be housed largely inside the party structure, giving GOP candidates up and down the ballot easy access to data, party officials said.
“We’re thinking big,” said Andrew Barkett, 32, a former Facebook engineer who joined the RNC in June to oversee the new system. Barkett describes what he’s building as a “tool belt” for GOP candidates that will prove more effective than the “locked treasure chest” created by the Obama campaign.
Some in the party, although welcoming the effort, caution that leaders shouldn’t expect it to solve more fundamental problems, such as how Republicans can broaden their appeal before the next presidential campaign.
The RNC plan “addresses the data problem, but you still have a content problem — one that will affect all the candidates in 2016,” said Zac Moffatt, co-founder of the pro-GOP data firm Targeted Victory and Romney’s 2012 digital director. “You can find all the voters, but you still need to determine what you are going to say to them.”
Obama’s 2012 campaign made its mark by hiring dozens of A-list software engineers from Google, Facebook, Twitter and other Silicon Valley firms. It also opened a San Francisco field office where volunteer engineers who kept their day jobs in the valley pitched in on nights and weekends.
Barkett, whose résuméincludes stints at Google and Livestream, is devoting much of his time to traveling the country, PowerPoint in hand, selling GOP donors on the idea that he and his team have the ability to technologically “leapfrog” the Democrats in time for the midterms.
“I’m Andy — and I’m here to help,” reads one slide of his presentation, which, alongside a photo of a smiling Barkett, describes him as a “self-taught coder, expert nerd-herder, patriotic American, and proud Republican.”
Republicans held the technology advantage a decade ago, with George W. Bush strategists Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman amassing data used to microtarget voters down to the precinct level.
But in 2008, Obama set online fundraising records and began developing new ways to reach voters. And in 2012, armed with about $1 billion, the president’s team invested more money than any campaign in history in its digital operations, relying on its Silicon Valley engineers to build an elaborate system that vacuumed up data and targeted voters on an individual basis — “microtargeting on ’roids,” as one former staff member put it.
The data allowed the campaign to better tailor its advertising content and purchases — online, through the mail and on television — and avoid wasteful misdirected ads that have long been a staple of even the savviest campaigns.
Questions remain about how, exactly, future Democratic campaigns would benefit from Obama’s 2012 innovations, which are still largely owned and controlled by the president’s campaign organization, not the Democratic Party.
Conversations between Obama strategists and party officials are ongoing, according to people familiar with the discussions. One party official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said Democrats are confident that 2014 candidates would have access to the information.
DNC spokesman Michael Czin declined to comment on the discussions regarding the Obama data. But he dismissed the suggestion that his party faces any digital disadvantages. He said Republicans had a track record in recent years of promising big technology advances but not succeeding.
“Democrats continue to have a data and technology infrastructure that is years ahead of anything that the Republicans have even started to build,” he said.
Democratic candidates already have access to the party’s massive voter file and, along with liberal activist groups, can contract with an outside data-mining consortium, Catalist, which was started in 2006. And many of Obama’s 2012 digital staff members populate consulting firms that will work for party candidates in the future.
Catalist chief executive Laura Quinn pointed to a “new generation [of Democratic operatives] who are becoming very skilled at this type of organizing with this technology” as a big factor in giving the party an enduring technological advantage.
Still, Democrats are watching the RNC’s moves closely, noting that the addition of a nuts-and-bolts engineer such as Barkett rather than a traditional political strategist marks a new turn in the GOP’s approach to the technology arms race.
“You can teach technologists politics. You don’t teach technology to politicians,” said Harper Reed, who was the chief technology officer for Obama’s 2012 campaign. “That’s what was successful for us, and that’s ultimately what will be successful with this guy.”
Barkett’s PowerPoint presentation details some of the ways Obama outperformed Romney on the digital front. It shows the divide in terms of the numbers of digital staff members (200 for Obama and 120 for Romney) and analytics staffers (50-5, advantage Obama). One slide shows Romney deficits in terms of staffers with LinkedIn profiles (1,979 for Obama vs. 369 for Romney), as well as Twitter followers, Facebook friends and numbers of e-mails collected.
The RNC’s internal system will be coordinated with an outside data-mining firm called Data Trust. It will use a wide range of publicly available information to build out the party’s knowledge about individuals — including posts on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.
“All I want to do is give [Republican campaigns and political firms] a standard-sized garage to pull their truck up to and unload their wares,” Barkett said. “If we can get that working right, we can do more with our ecosystem than they could ever build in a Clinton for America campaign or whatever it might be.”
Barkett said he is confident that he will find Republican engineers in the liberal Valley. He thinks that as many as 40 percent of the software engineers there lean toward the GOP. He hopes to bring about 30 new developers onto his team.
But, Barkett conceded, many conservatives in the Valley still choose to keep their political orientations in the closet.
“I knew who was gay on my team at Facebook, but I had no idea who was a Republican,” Barkett said.