CIO Briefing

What's Missing From the GOP's Technology Strategy?

A Romney volunteer works on a campaign Facebook page in 2012.

A Romney volunteer works on a campaign Facebook page in 2012. // Jacquelyn Martin/AP

The Republican National Committee’s sweeping new strategy document admits what observers have been saying since the GOP lost the White House for the second time running last year: The party faces an identity crisis. How the report suggests fixing that, as my colleague Matt Cooper notes, is mostly a matter of process — better outreach, spending differently on TV ads, rethinking the endless party primary.

But when it comes to technology, the RNC knows it needs to do something dramatic if it wants to catch up with Democrats. Party Chairman Reince Priebus had a few ideas. Here are the highlights:

1. Chase the data. Democrats in the last election used sophisticated data-testing methods to refine their e-mail messages and telephone scripts. One of those methods was to perform a comparative type of analysis called A/B testing, in which researchers give various groups slightly different versions of the same product to see which one does better. Priebus wants his data team to do similar work.

“We need to know what language is most likely to motivate a donor or a voter and convert them into a vote for Republican candidates,” the report read. “We cannot leave anything to intuition.”

With the help of a few tech investors from Silicon Valley, the RNC is planning to build a central voter database that virtually anyone working on any Republican campaign can access, from candidates to volunteers to state committees and “friendly third-party organizations.”

2. Hire the talent. In an allusion to the party’s demographic deficit, the RNC report suggested recruiting young computer-science majors straight from college campuses to work in GOP data analysis. These graduates wouldn’t be brought on staff just for the duration of a campaign; they’d be full-time employees. To lead all these people, the RNC will also bring in a chief technology officer by the beginning of May.

Digital operations, the report said, “has to be embedded in every function and backed up with appropriate staffing and funding. This is a major cultural shift.”

3. Get cozy with tech types. Networking with conservatives in mostly liberal tech utopias such as Austin, Texas; New York; and San Francisco will help draw more data-savvy folks to the cause, the RNC reasoned.

“The RNC should strive to be an active member of a thriving digital community,” the report said.

Republicans probably have even more work ahead of them than the report mentions. Its diagnosis of the technological gap treats the problem as a capacity deficit. The GOP believes that if they fill that gap, their party will be competitive again, at least in the process of politics. But that way of thinking can lead to pitfalls — namely, a misreading of what technology can accomplish.

"We need to define our mission by setting specific political goals," the report said, "and then allowing data, digital, and tech talent to unleash the tools of technology."

This "just set it free" approach belies a kind of determinism obscuring the real challenge for Republicans. Getting your hands on the technology is one thing. What do you do with it once you have it? 

Other areas of the report try to address that question, but only in part, and they don't account for technology's continual evolution. Mixing geeks and databases might have been the key to last year's election, but it might simply be the minimum requirement for relevance in the next. If Republicans want to own the digital terrain, they will need to out-innovate the Democrats starting now, rather than expecting to catch up to where the Democrats were in 2012.

Much of that innovation will take place on the softer side of the data revolution, the analytical part that's more cognitively taxing. Whoever can ask the best questions of their data in the best way -- that's where there's room for Republicans to really grow.

While many of those skills can be learned over time, it's less clear how much of it can be taught to a person in short order, much less seeded across a national organization.

What the RNC saw of President Obama's highly efficient digital campaign last fall was actually the end result of a much lengthier and messier learning process stretching back nearly a decade.

If Priebus thinks he can build a product that can compete at the same level within three years (or one year, if you're counting to the midterms), more power to him.

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// November 26
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