BEDFORD: How the GOP can screw up 2014, and how to keep track

Christopher Bedford Former Editor in Chief, The Daily Caller News Foundation
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On Monday, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus unveiled the Growth and Opportunity Project, or what could have been called the Save the National GOP From Electoral Doom Project.

The suggestions included reaching outside of the political realm for existing talent; scouring campuses for rising talent; expanding Republican abilities in data, analytics and digital; and opening the culture in Republican leadership to these changes. These are good suggestions, and as one data-driven man told The Daily Caller, they comprise a good book report, “but aren’t proof that they read the book.” And we think that man is right. (RELATED: GOP future to include app store, ‘culture of data,’ and hackathons)

Because what we have here is a national chairman saying the right words, and walking that line. But lip service has been paid before.

After Sen. John McCain’s disastrous 2008 defeat, some Republicans paid lip service to augmenting Republican abilities; and in 2012, some operatives actually convinced donors and the media that their Orca project was somehow an answer to Democratic prowess. (BEDFORD: Why Orca is innocent, and nobody wants to talk about it)

Though “digital” and “data-driven” are the phrases of the hour, we’re concerned that many of those using them don’t know what they mean. So here at TheDC, we’re going to break it down in easy English, and then explain how we think Republican success — or failure — can be measured in the coming months. (And whether this project will have an impact on 2016 — never mind 2014 — will be evident in the coming months.) But first:

What is data?

“Data” is the building blocks of everything a campaign does. Built off of a voter file usually obtained from the government, a campaign’s data collection begins with things as basic as name, age, zip code, party affiliation. From there, it goes onto more complicated things that have to be acquired independently, like did this person attend an event the campaign held, how much money do they make, how much money do they give, what is their marital status, what is their credit rating, and do they subscribe to Field and Stream or Hip Hop Weekly. The list goes on for as long as a campaign has the brains and the resources to aggregate and utilize said list.

For a campaign to be able to make the most of this data, it will first need to keep track of what it is doing and log that information into a database; it will need intelligent people to maintain that database; and it will need vendors that are up to date and can report activity back to the campaign for logging into the voter file. This may sound simple, but good and actionable data requires basic technology, an attention to detail, and a focused discipline lacking in many Republican offices today.

Data is an essential tool, and it was mentioned 197 times in the RNC’s report, but by itself is about as impressive as a single brick. Using that brick to build the Parthenon — or electoral victory — is the next step.

What is analytics?

Analytics is the science of building that Parthenon — or interpreting the data so as to be able to make actionable recommendations.

Essentially, the goal of a campaign is to 1) Turn out voters who are loyal but who may not have shown up; and 2) Convince voters who are already showing up, but who are undecided, to vote for their candidate. Everything else — from fundraisers to phone calls to yard signs — is simply a means of achieving these two goals.

As these fundraisers, phone calls and yard signs are deployed, data is collected and analyzed to interpret that information for the campaign, answering questions like “Who should we be targeting?”; “What methods have the greatest impact on our targets?”; “What can be done to improve the efficiency of those methods?” (BEDFORD: The tyranny of the GOP’s political consultants)

Through sound collection, testing, and interpretation, a campaign can move deftly through murky territory, accomplishing seemingly impossible things like, say, convincing a country that an election isn’t about massive unemployment, spiraling deficits and empty promises – it’s about condoms.

Analytics — the means by which data can be weaponized — was mentioned only 33 times in the report.

One of those means of achieving victory is called digital, and, we admit, Republicans’ frequent use of the term gives us pause. So:

What is digital?

Though it was mentioned 90 times in the RNC’s postmortem, “digital” really just means online communications, like banner ads, Facebook communications and tweets.

Don’t get us wrong — digital communications are important, and President Barack Obama’s campaign’s digital communications were vastly superior to those of Gov. Mitt Romney, but digital is about as useful — or useless — as TV ads, door-knocks or blimps, depending on the campaign’s ability to collect data, analyze it, and react accordingly.

If the GOP looks at 2008 and 2012 and says “we lost because we were out-emailed” or “we lost because we didn’t have enough Facebook friends,” they’re in serious trouble. Which brings us to what metrics to look for over the next number of months.

Keeping an eye on the RNC

Over the next three months, whether the RNC is taking their defeats — and what it will take to turn them around — seriously, will be evident through two metrics: budget and hires. (And, as we explain below, even these two are not entirely sufficient.)

While a data gap was acknowledged and paid lip service to in 2008, the resources devoted to fixing it were not nearly sufficient to even maintain the distance between the two campaigns’ capabilities. In the coming years, the RNC will need to put substantially more of their budget toward data and analytics: Experts in the field have told TheDC that a good start would be a commitment of 10 percent of their budget; but in order to quickly catch up with the Democrats, as much as 25 percent may be required.

At the same time, who the RNC and leading Republicans hire onto their teams will be a good indicator. Yes, they plan to open a Silicon Valley field office, but will the minds from Apple and Google actually join the campaign? Who will be placed where? And will the consultants that helped run Republicans into the ground continue to hold sway? (BEDFORD: How Romney’s consultants lost the election as soon as it began)

And this last question is a damn important one, because arguably the most difficult aspect of GOP evolution — a cultural evolution — is necessary for success. The RNC and its affiliates can hire the greatest minds in the field, and pump hundreds of millions of dollars into their projects, but if their reports are maligned by idiots clinging to direct mail legacies or television dogma, and those idiots have more sway in the decision-making process than the data-driven folks, all of that money and brain power will be for naught.

See, just as running a modern campaign takes more than lip service and data-collection, winning a modern campaign takes more than money and brain power.

Over the next three months, we’ll begin to see where the RNC is really headed. With them, we’ll see where the party is headed; and with them, who knows? Maybe the country.

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