The technology future of the conservative movement

Todd Herman Contributor
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Would you drive through a major intersection with your eyes closed because, last time you checked, the traffic light was green? It’s an absurd question.

Is it any less absurd for a political operation to rely upon data remarkably older than its opponents?

The electorate—and live data—is ever evolving. Navigating through either without your faculties is a game of life or death, especially in perilous situations like driving your children home during an ice storm or a single news event changing voters’ opinions.

Here is how quickly live data happens using a relatively low-tech example of how President Obama’s team of mathematicians used live signals. A low information voter, let’s call her Julia, laughs at a TV pundit’s Big Bird joke. Julia searches Big Bird on her phone and sees a keyword ad from the Obama Campaign: “Help President Obama save Big Bird!”

Now, Julia clicks on her first ad of the campaign cycle costing about a penny. While visiting a website Julia interacts with an online poll question. She then receives e-mails about Big Bird and the Obama campaign creates models to find other similar women who will donate and makes pledges to vote. Somewhere in America a traffic light changed and Team Obama is on their way to building a new segment of likely voters in swing states who pledge to vote because of a bird.

Lest you think the example too small, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina admits they won on “the small stuff.”

Will conservative political operations compete?

In politics, campaigns attempt to drive their candidates’ positives up and their opponents down by speaking to people’s emotions. Imagine if you could see on a screen exactly how much suspicion, doubt, trust, respect or other emotions a specific population has for your candidate. You would then have an objective measure against which to benchmark your campaign efforts at changing people’s emotions.

Big data collected in real time through digital activity now enables the extraction of these emotional queues.

For the Right, the sad news is there is no analogue to the Obama machine in conservative politics.

The reason professional operatives on the right have not succeeded in fully leveraging these abilities isn’t due to lack of smarts or desire to win.  The Right is capable of technological advances. The Right invented political micro-targeting, won awards for design in the 90’s and built database overlays, an advanced method of digital ad targeting. In 2010, as Geoff Livingston noted in Mashable.com, the RNC had the very beginnings of a platform designed to grow into what Team Obama employs. Nurturing that platform required continuity, time and attention.

The reason Republicans cannot seem to keep their incremental technology gains is because when a new Chairman is elected he brings with him his own staff who, of course, set out to do things their own way. Current RNC Chairman Priebus’ staff made a valiant attempt, but all this takes time. They didn’t have time coupled with a delay until their Presidential nominee was chosen. For traditional disciplines like communications or political strategy that’s fine. For slow moving technologies like a static voter database that was once okay. In a world of modern technology, it is deadly.

Conservatives will never catch up and join the world of live time until they move on from their pastimes. If the Right is serious about winning the technology war they must:

  1. Shelter technology decisions from any form of committee politics — fits and starts will kill technology progress. Get the technology division out of DC, shelter them in a separate entity, do a search for a strategic vendor and give them a performance-based long-term contract but get technology out of the way of the every two year shake-ups.
  2. Economically prioritize addressable media – Entire swaths of Americans are mathematically unreachable on television. Pay your advertising vendors to recruit human beings, not ratings points. Follow the money. Pay for performance because, in direct marketing which defines all politics, ratings points are side shows. Sign-ups, sharing, donations and votes are outcomes.
  3. Ban the phrase television from any media buying orders — One of the biggest buying agencies in the world did this over eight years ago. Their people buy video and they are ranked in performance not on ratings points alone.
  4. Share your data – The Left’s system works so well because nearly all of the data gathered by their network of affiliates is shared and fed into a single database. The Left gathers data at a scale exponentially larger than any single GOP committee or combination of committees.
  5. Establish and immediately fund off cycle technology experiments — the time to experiment with technologies is not six months prior to a national campaign. It is in the off-cycles. Current practice is to scuttle all activity during these down times. This cannot continue. Launch your crazy experiments in the off hours, just as Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, famously gave his employees the right to do.

The traffic light is green—step on the gas—and keep your eyes open.

Todd Herman is former Director of Digital Strategy for the Republican National Committee and Co-Founder of Crowdverb.com.