For GOP, overcoming tech gap starts in Virginia

When the Republican National Committee released its post-2012 autopsy report in March, the “Growth and Opportunity Project,” it mentioned the so-called “tech gap” as one of the biggest factors in the party’s continued decline at the national level. Indeed, it admitted that the Democrats had a “clear edge” in get-out-the-vote technology and promised to build a “culture of data and learning” that has been conspicuously absent in the GOP. “A commitment to greater technology and digital resources … is critical,” the report read.

Late last month, we learned just how critical overcoming the tech gap is to the GOP when the National Republican Senatorial Committee announced the hiring of four longtime party insiders to man the group’s digital strategy. Of course. When the Democrats need tech talent, they look to innovators. The GOP looks through a 30-year-old Rolodex.

Nevertheless, Senate elections are a year away. This year, there are two major races, both gubernatorial contests, in New Jersey and Virginia. Let’s set aside New Jersey, where Gov. Chris Christie has a 35-point lead in the latest Quinnipiac poll. Virginia is where we’ll learn whether the GOP wants to be a 21st-century political player.

The pollsters and pundits like to portray Virginia as a “purple” state, a battleground where either party might win. The truth is somewhat different. Since 2006, Democrats have won five out of six races for U.S. senator, governor and president in the Old Dominion. The sole GOP victory was current Gov. Bob McDonnell’s 2009 win, and this Democratic trend will continue unless Republicans finally figure out why they keep losing.

President Obama didn’t win Virginia in 2012 by four points because his campaign held more “Skype-based training sessions,” as RNC Chairman Reince Priebus promised to do earlier this year. He won because Democrats maintain a voter database, which they have used to track voters’ habits and interests since 2006. Known as the NGP VAN, the Democrats’ national voter database has information from across the country. Then-Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean was much ridiculed for his so-called “50-state strategy” by the Washington establishment. But Dean’s efforts to contest each precinct across the nation resulted in a central repository of voter intelligence. Dean not only has silenced the critics, his strategy is still winning elections.

The key to NGP VAN is that it’s an open system. Many people — from the Sierra Club, ACORN and local candidates up to presidential campaigns — can access and improve the voter file. The massive amount of data the system has collected over the past seven years has allowed Democrats and their allies to find uncommon trends in commonly overlooked data.

The GOP has nothing on par with NGP VAN, which is more than ironic. Using the technology available at the time, Karl Rove and top GOP operative Blaise Hazelwood all but coined the phrase “micro-targeting” back in 2002 and 2004. The forward-thinking didn’t last, however, and the GOP made perhaps its greatest mistake in decades: It locked away access to data in the aptly named “VoterVault.” Only select advocates could access, change and improve data. No “50-state strategy,” no centralized repository, minimal collaboration among campaigns and zero GOP innovation.