How Republicans intend to close the tech talent gap

Liberals involved in President Obama's reelection campaign tend to downplay what's been reported as a revolution in political technology. The 2012 campaign's use of data and analytics to target voters wasn't novel, they insist — just a logical extension of lessons learned over years of experimentation. More important, they believe, is a Democratic talent pool that keeps getting bigger and more sophisticated with every cycle. Fancy tools are meaningless, after all, without the right people to wield them.

Conservatives agree — which is why some, in a bid to catch up with the left, are now moving to ramp up the technology training being given to the rank and file. Part of that effort will involve a series of workshops at the yearly right-wing conference known as CPAC.

The sessions are being organized by Republican strategist Patrick Ruffini and the one-year-old organization Empower Action Group, which is billed as the right's answer to liberal organizations that teach progressives how to send effective e-mail blasts, canvass voters with customized scripts and other techniques of the trade.

"Traditionally, CPAC has been this huge conference where you see presidential candidates and big name speakers," said Ruffini. "But there hasn't been in years past an emphasis on practical, on-the-ground training."

In offering around 20 workshops over the three-day gathering, Empower Action hopes to emulate an annual tradition on the left called Rootscamp where progressives swap ideas on political technology. The breakout sessions at CPAC will be interactive and hosted by people who have been doing organizing work for the right. The idea, said Ruffini, is to give organizers exercises and the theoretical background they need before heading out to various states for the 2014 election season.

On the liberal side, people who've done field work often return to Rootscamp to share what they've learned in the last cycle, which helps other progressives prepare for the next one. That creates a feedback loop of expertise that improves the grass-roots talent pool even as other organizations, such as the New Organizing Institute, hold periodic technology bootcamps to expand the size of it. Meanwhile, liberals are also working to make data from different service vendors interoperable, which will reduce the amount of training that an organizer needs to be effective.

Ruffini says that a Republican talent factory of that scale is still months or even a year away. But the left's approach to human resources, he added, "is something we're looking at very closely … we're very interested in that model."

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecommunications and the Internet. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.

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Brian Fung · February 24, 2014

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