How Republicans Are Looking to Close the Digital Divide Against Democrats

The GOP's leading wave of strategists offer advice on how to fix the party's technological woes.

As Robert Draper underscored in last week’s New York Times magazine cover story, the Republican Party is engaged in serious soul-searching about why they were so badly outgunned by the Democrats on the technology front in the last election. One of the most telling anecdotes in the story: The suggestion that Mitt Romney’s campaign manager, Stuart Stevens, could be the last such figure not to tweet as part of strategy.

In conversations with leading Republican digital strategists, there’s an acknowledgment that the path to closing the tech gap will be difficult. Republicans are a more hierarchical party and rely on many of the same consultants that have been around since the days of Ronald Reagan. These digital-first Republican operatives argue that Democrats could have the advantage for years to come unless significant changes are made to the way the party conducts its business.

But they did offer myriad suggestions on how to shake things up, and help the party in the process. Here are the most notable suggestions:

Give ideas room to breathe, and engage GOP techies.

Several GOP strategists said that there are plenty of tech-savvy conservatives who could lend a lot of help to campaigns, but they lack experience on the trail. So they’re usually passed over for jobs in favor of more-seasoned campaign veterans. 

“We have to be willing to give [them] an opportunity to flourish and thrive within the party apparatus, and not to partition our resources, meaning to folks who have done campaigning a certain way for so many years,” said Cyrus Krohn, former digital strategist for the RNC who since started his own company.

But to get new ideas into the pipeline, this new wave of engineers and social-media experts need to be brought on board and become an essential part of the campaign infrastructure. Ideas, even if they don’t end up working out, need to be tried out and tested. For a party that hasn’t had the stomach to go experimental lately, it’s a tough sell — but one that’ll need to be made.

“It’s tougher for new ideas to grow and flourish because resources are so heavily focused on things that worked before,” says Kristen Soltis Anderson, GOP pollster and vice president of The Winston Group.

“There’s kind of this reluctance when processes have been guided for a very long time by gut instinct, by experts who have 20 to 30 years’ experience, who have done political campaigns,” said Michael Turk, the RNC’s first eCampaign director.

Many digital-first conservatives tend to hail from the more-libertarian wing of the party, which is another reason they’re not quite so readily accepted — or are interested — in the GOP’s establishment culture.

Come to terms with the hierarchical nature of the party. 

Democrats successfully engaged and empowered their grassroots activists. On the flip side, the often-tense relationship between the GOP establishment and tea-party base has made it tough for the party to compete. The problem becomes even more complex once outside groups are thrown into the mix, since they can’t coordinate with official campaigns or parties.

One former national GOP strategist put it this way: “The official campaigns themselves (individually) are very centralized, and always have been. But now these centralized organizations are now one of many silos in an overall decentralized political environment.”

RedState cofounder Ben Domenech suggests that a centralized organization of some sort could actually help lead to better ideas and products. He compared it to a venture-capital model; an organization can invest in small projects that can be tested and then share the lessons with others.

“The Right is always going to be hierarchical,” Domenech says. “But instead of hierarchy getting in the way, what if you essentially said, this is going to be an organization that will be at the center.”

Developing open-source technologies — software that lets users modify and improve upon the code and data — is another important component to empowering the new wave of digital activists.

The party had actually been moving toward a more open tech environment. In the lead-up to the 2008 election, the Republican National Committee developed an open-source API platform that would have let state parties and others access the central party’s database and build upon it. That project was shut down after years of development, something Turk has called “a tragic miscalculation.”

Pour resources into digital nuts and bolts.

You can’t just have useful technology or good databases if you don’t have the digital platform that can actually make use of it and let it grow over time – it’s like trying to run a good smartphone app on an outdated smartphone. GOP political strategist Soren Dayton uses a war analogy to illustrate the conundrum: “Part of the reason World War I was so bloody was that they had the basic tools of modern warfare, but they didn’t know how to use them in smart ways. So they just sat in trenches and shot at each other,” he said. “We need technology, but we need to use it more effectively.”

Building out a technological infrastructure that isn’t so centralized and that can adapt over time, like that open-source API platform the RNC had been working on, could counteract some of the issues the national party has experienced with the changing of hands. “There’s very little continuity because chairmen come in and they want to make their mark, and they bring in their own people and we’re in this perpetual state of resetting,” Krohn says.

Resources are already going into digital initiatives. One of the GOP’s congressional campaign committees has begun to beef up its digital game. The National Republican Congressional Committee expanded its digital team from three to 10 members, with the committee billing it as the largest such team in Republican politics. Other strategists are starting to explore ways to utilize the behavioral sciences, much like the Democrats did in 2012.

Develop and test like crazy in 2013.

If Republicans want to get ahead of the Democrats’ digital game by 2014’s midterms, their best chance is during the off-year 2013 gubernatorial and senate special elections. It’s a time when the GOP could develop and fund applications and tech solutions.

“Once we hit January 2014, it’s going to be heads down on focusing on the midterms, and people aren’t going to have the tolerance level to experiment and test or fund new capabilities, because we as a party fall into a traditional campaign cycle,” Krohn said.

The Virginia governor’s race, in particular, could end up a technological battleground.

The gubernatorial race between Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe is shaping up to be very competitive, and could serve as a bellwether for the 2014 midterms. State law allows unlimited contributions, which could help fund some proposed innovations.

But remember, technology isn’t the silver bullet.

The Democratic technology edge wasn’t the only reason President Obama won in 2012.

“We can target people really well, we can build systems that allow us to have a lot of data about every voter,” says Anderson. “We also have to make sure that the message we’re delivering and the policy behind that message is worthy and relevant to younger generations.”

Of all of the identity crises the GOP is grappling with, the tech gap is probably the least controversial. Many people within the party acknowledge it’s a problem, says Domenech. “There is no big group force of people saying we don’t need to do anything on tech,” he said.

But, he added, “That’s separate from the message part. You have to have a message to connect with people. Otherwise, just being better at the connection part is not going to be enough.”