GOP Makes Tech Gains But Still Playing Catch-Up

GOP Makes Tech Gains But Still Playing Catch-Up

By Adam O'Neal - December 17, 2013

Earlier this year, the Republican National Committee released a political autopsy titled "Growth and Opportunity Project." The much-discussed report touched on the wide array of perceived party shortcomings -- from poor messaging to the lengthy presidential primary -- that presumably hampered the GOP in the last two (losing) presidential elections.

The most conspicuous points in the 100-page report focus on Republican attempts at “rebranding” and improving the party’s standing among young, female and minority voters. Whenever Republicans make a messaging misstep -- such as when the RNC tweeted praise for Rosa Parks and “her role in ending racism” earlier this month -- opponents gleefully point to the gaffe as evidence that the rebranding efforts have failed.

But the longest section of “Growth and Opportunity Project” focuses on the less exciting topic of campaign mechanics. The report conceded that “Democrats had the clear edge on new media and ground game, in terms of both reach and effectiveness.”

The authors offered several recommendations for how Republicans could improve their campaigns. And since its release, the RNC said it has made strides in building the 21st-century infrastructure needed to win elections. The committee is now attempting to become “the most technologically advanced organization in politics,” according to RNC spokesman Raffi Williams.

The digital revamp is inextricably tied to the party’s pursuit of a “permanent ground game,” the committee announced in an October memo.

In the memo, RNC Communications Director Sean Spicer wrote that the organization would shift away from its strategy of stockpiling cash and spending heavily in the three months before an election. Instead, it has begun investing in technology and staff to maintain a permanent presence in communities throughout the country. Permanent ground-game staffers are continuously collecting data on voters to improve turnout and increase the efficiency of spending.

Currently, the GOP has more people in the field than at the RNC’s Capitol Hill headquarters.

“We’re in roughly 30 states,” said Williams. “The 2014 states are being built out first and most include state directors, field staff, minority directors and field staff and data directors.” He added that the party, looking to 2016, has started investing in all 50 states.

In the past, the RNC would survey potential voters once and then contact them with information about issues that those voters cared about. The once-successful strategy is now outdated, as Democrats have shown their ability to continually follow-up with voters and better tailor their messaging to individuals.

Investing in a permanent ground game allows the RNC to do what Democrats have already been doing for years. Williams said that the spending will enable the RNC “to build real relationships with voters and will allow our relationships to be more individualized.”

DNC spokesman Mike Czin told RealClearPolitics that though he has “no doubt that Republicans are making investments and really spending time trying to figure out how to do this,” they are still lagging behind.

Czin pointed to the Virginia gubernatorial race as proof that GOP investments in this effort have not yet paid off. A few weeks before the election, Republican Ken Cuccinelli’s campaign sent out an e-mail asking those interested in volunteering to reach out again because “sometimes things fall through the cracks.”

“That tells me that whatever investments they’re making weren’t being used by the biggest targeted, competitive race of the year,” Czin said of the contest won by Democrat Terry McAuliffe.

Toward the end of the October memo, Spicer noted that the change of strategy wasn’t “about one candidate or one campaign or one election year. … It’s about building a lasting foundation.” That could be perceived as a reference to the divide between the Democratic National Committee and Organizing for Action, the president’s permanent political presence.

Following the 2008 presidential election, Obama’s campaign became part of the DNC and was renamed Organizing for America. OFA was charged with helping implement the president’s agenda. At the time, the organization focused on energizing the vast grassroots network that helped elect Obama in 2008 in order to help pass the Affordable Care Act.

This January, however, Organizing for America broke from the DNC and became a non-profit called Organizing for Action. Its mission mirrors that of the party -- the new OFA has spent 2013 advocating for gun control and immigration reform -- but it works independently from the DNC.

The separation has caused some tension. Although the two organizations ostensibly advocate for the same things, they now compete for donor dollars. 2013 has been a lackluster season for fundraising at the DNC, which has been outraised by the RNC for most of the year.

While the Obama campaign masterminded the Democrats’ technological leaps, it mostly focused on advancing one cause: the re-election of President Obama. It was unclear for most of this year whether the campaign would share data from its much-praised Project Narwhal. (Narwhal contains massive amounts of voter data information.) In November, following complaints from Democrats who wanted access to 2012 Obama data, news broke that the former campaign would give most of its voter information to the DNC’s master voter file. But it would rent out its e-mail list to OFA, party committees and other groups.

For its part, the RNC hopes to avoid the awkward divides -- perceived or actual -- that have defined the relationship between the overlapping DNC, OFA, and Obama campaign infrastructures. Republicans will have their work cut out for them. Currently, their data are possibly more fragmented than those on the Democratic side. Several organizations have data platforms designed for Republicans, and the RNC is working on consolidation.

Williams said that the RNC is “building something that can be used for cycles to come” that will help elect Republicans at every level. And he argued that the best place to build a data center is at the RNC.

“Doing it together ensures we have the most quality data points we can as a party,” he said. “There are strategic advantages to having the RNC do this and not a candidate -- no other organization has the ability to coordinate and share with candidates and state parties the way the RNC can.”

To that end, the RNC is working to become a one-stop data shop for Republican candidates throughout the country. A “data warehouse” with decades’ worth of information is being amassed for the benefit of Republicans ranging from city council candidates to aspiring presidents.

Still, the RNC can only do so much to help Republicans get elected. Publicly and privately, Republicans concede the Democrats’ point that technology isn’t panacea for GOP woes. “Their biggest shortcoming and their biggest failing is their message,” said Czin. “That’s what alienated voters and that’s what drove voters away.”

Regardless, maintaining a significant edge with data collection will be critical in the upcoming cycle’s closer contests.

Republicans may catch up or even pass Democrats in terms of technological infrastructure. But it could take longer for them to reorient the culture of their organization and effectively train their staff and volunteers to use that infrastructure. And the true test of whether Republicans have created the right synergy between technology and culture won’t come until Election Day 2014. 

Adam O'Neal is a political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RealClearAdam.

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