Is Tech Supremacy Key to Control of the Senate?

Is Tech Supremacy Key to Control of the Senate?
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With Republicans just six seats from winning control of the Senate for the final two years of President Obama’s term, GOP officials have been working to gain a technological campaign advantage over Democrats -- an edge that could determine the outcome of close races.

With so much as stake for both parties, not to mention President Obama, the so-called tech war has begun to intensify. Democrats are devoted to keeping the technological supremacy they’ve held since the 2008 election, while Republicans are investing heavily to catch up.

“As Democrats, we can’t just keep re-creating what we did in 2012,” said Matt Dover, director of campaigns at Civis, a technology and analytics firm started by former Obama campaign staffers. “We do have an advantage now, but we need to continue pushing the envelope” with new and improved tools to better leverage big data.

In describing the tech battlefield, some history is instructive. Until several years ago, political campaigns had largely been run the same way for decades. Get-out-the-vote efforts, relying largely on volunteers who call known voters to remind them about the upcoming election, supplemented mass advertising and media campaigns intended to sway public opinion. The efforts weren’t defined by precision -- lots of people can see a TV ad, including those immune to its arguments -- but a well-run, well-funded campaign generally helped a candidate improve turnout and shape the public’s attitudes.

But the rise of the Internet, advances in computer technology, and better data collection have all revolutionized this process.  Data and technology have become integrated into campaigns “in just about any way imaginable, increasingly,” explained Nick Schaper, senior vice president at the digital consulting agency Engage. “Anything from effective field organizing to fundraising, and messaging tactics as well. You can find an effective use in just about every facet of a campaign.”

The transformation arguably began in 2004, when President Bush’s campaign analyzed voters’ behavior, consumer data, and political attitudes to micro-target its messages at key specific groups.  This in turn allowed for a better allocation of resources and focusing on voters the campaign had the best chance of winning over.

For example, the weekend before the election, the campaign sent out a mailer in swing states that used emotional images from 9/11 to highlight the president’s leadership during the crisis. (Sasha Issenberg detailed this effort in his book “The Victory Lab.”) The mailer was directed only at likely voters whom the campaign calculated it had a less than a 50 percent chance of winning over. It was a risky decision -- as using a national tragedy in a political advertisement had the potential to backfire -- but was considered justified because the micro-targeting algorithm suggested these voters would be open to the appeal, even though they were currently unlikely to support Bush.

Some analysts later suggested that a significant portion of the president’s 2.4 percentage point margin of victory over John Kerry could be attributed to the savvy messaging and sophisticated turnout efforts.  Democrats understood the threat that tech inferiority posed to future campaigns, and in 2005 the party began developing a three-pronged technology investment strategy to overtake their opponents in future elections.

First, the Democratic National Committee invested in an expansive national voter file that contained lists of registered voters along with the types of interactions that campaigns have had with them in the past. Second, the DNC sought to build a set of tools to make use of that voter file. The upshot, known as Vote Builder, was rolled out in 2005 and contained practical tools for campaigns: computer programs to help create voter call lists, keep track of conversations, and monitor the campaign’s progress.

The third area of investment was human capital. The DNC hired staff to train activists and local parties throughout the country in how to use the new voter file and the accompanying tools. By the 2008 presidential primary, all Democratic candidates had access to the file and the technology that came with it, along with the trained support staff. In addition, the voter file grew as primary candidates supplemented it with their campaigns’ data. It was the beginning of the Democrat’s reign of technological dominance.

The Obama campaign went even further, investing heavily in its own data/technology efforts and making micro-targeting central to its strategy. By trying to rally those who had otherwise been written off as unlikely to vote, the strategy helped pull off an upset victory in the 2008 Iowa caucuses. By the time the general election rolled around, Alexander Gage, a Republican political consultant who played a central role in the Bush campaign’s micro-targeting efforts, told the New York Times that “Obama has better deployed micro-targeting and is using it more” than any other candidate in history.

Following that victory, Democrats created an entity known as DNC Labs to maintain their edge. Though this advantage couldn’t ward off the anti-Democratic tide of 2010, the modeling and tools were steadily improved. After Obama was re-elected in 2012, the DNC shifted its focus to scalability. Indeed, Terry McAuliffe was able to utilize data from the Obama campaign to win election as Virginia governor last year (and add to it in the process), and Old Dominion Sen. Mark Warner will put the voter file to use in his re-election bid later this year.

Part of the reason Democrats are so focused on scalability is because the smaller the race, the more important technology can be. Elan Kriegel of Blue Labs, another Democratic data and analytics firm started by Obama campaign alumni, said that the power of analytics to save money and time for campaigns “diminishes as races get bigger and bigger.” While a presidential campaign with a billion-dollar war chest may be able to contact a swing state voter a dozen times, a candidate with a smaller electorate typically can’t expend the same resources. Thus, the efficiencies created by better data are proportionally more important.

These days, Democrats tout tech advances that they believe will pay dividends in the midterms, including tools that aggregate data about a campaign’s progress, visualize voter data with mapping technology, improve the efficiency of volunteer sign-ups, and help voters identify polling place locations.

Outside firms are also innovating. Gabriel Burt, chief technology officer at Civis, said his firm is building a tool that mechanizes some of the rote functions of surveying the electorate, saving analysts hours to conduct real analysis and making field outreach more powerful.

Late last month, the DNC announced the launch of Project Ivy, a technology and data innovation hub that aims to help Democrats throughout the ballot, top to bottom. Party officials are also using data to better drive their opinion research, so the party can make more informed decisions about whom to reach and how. The ultimate goal, officials say, is to expand the number of people who vote.

Of course, Republicans aren’t standing still and are intent upon reclaiming tech hegemony. Last year, the Republican National Committee hired Andy Barkett, a former Facebook manager, to lead the party’s digital and data section. And the RNC has spent tens of millions of dollars on new employees, data collection, and infrastructure.

The central feature of the RNC’s comeback attempt is Para Bellum Labs (the first two words are Latin for “prepare for war”), which the RNC debuted a few weeks before the Project Ivy announcement.  The new in-house tech hub is meant to fuse the RNC’s digital marketing efforts with its data and analytics component. The party is aggressively recruiting talent from top tech companies and engineering schools throughout the country. The RNC has a tech-focused office in Silicon Valley, while Para Bellum is housed inside the committee’s Capitol Hill headquarters.

RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said in a press release that through Para Bellum “we will continue bringing in top talent to inspire innovative products to power campaigns and change the way we do business in the Republican Party.”

RNC officials echoed that mantra in a meeting with reporters early this year, saying that the committee has become a data-centric organization that continues searching for new ways to better inform its decisions. One such tool is the surrogate data base, a list of more than 10,000 Republicans from across the country that state parties, among other groups, can tap into. If a GOP candidate in Florida is looking for a Hispanic businesswoman to speak at a rally, for example, he or she can use the data base to locate an appropriate person.

Republicans have also invested in a permanent ground game in an effort to maintain a presence in various communities and continuously improve their data collection. It apparently is working: In January, for instance, the RNC collected nearly 170,000 new e-mail addresses.

Engage’s Schaper, a former Hill staffer who works closely with Republicans, added, “Seeing first-hand the investments that are being made by the campaign committees and outside groups in infrastructure, in training, in technology, I think is a very clear indicator that [achieving parity with Democrats] is within reach.”

Democrats, however, remain confident that the Republicans still have a long way to go before catching up. They argue that while Republicans may be investing more in technology, the GOP hasn’t built the culture of technological innovation that their party has. Democratic field organizers have years of experience working with the tech tools, they say, while Republicans are still learning. And they argue that technology needs to be tested, so the midterms can only serve as an experiment for GOP advances; fully catching-up will take until 2016, at the earliest.

Of course, political observers won’t know for sure who is winning the tech war until November -- when the election’s results will speak volumes about the progress each party has made since 2012. With control of the Senate in the balance, the stakes couldn’t be much higher. Just how much could technological supremacy alter the political landscape, given that factors such as the mood of the nation and strength of candidates will have the greatest impact? Most technology experts agree that data and technology can only affect races at the margins.

Civis’ Dover said that in 2014, “there are bound to be races that are going to be decided by 1 percent, 2 percent. In those kind of races, absolutely, those campaigns that are smartest … are going to be the ones that win.” He cautioned, however that it’s difficult to quantify how much tech can sway a race, given the how many unknown variables are involved.

Betsy Hoover, a partner at the technology and analytics firm 270 Strategies, which was also started by Obama campaign alumni, said that data and tech are, “in some ways, most important in a close race. What you’re talking about is making your outreach as targeted and efficient as possible.”

Asked if control of the Senate could be determined by technological superiority, Schaper responded, “Sure, absolutely.” He pointed to Arkansas’ Rep. Tom Cotton -- whose race against Sen. Mark Pryor is considered a must-win for Republicans -- as a candidate who has a “well-oiled digital operation that very well could be a deciding factor.”

If control of the upper chamber comes down to just a few close races like Arkansas’, then the party best able to leverage technological advances may well be the one that controls the upper chamber. Ultimately, the remainder of President Obama’s second term agenda may hinge on the relatively quiet war being fought between data and tech gurus of both parties.

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

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