For GOP, overcoming tech gap starts in Virginia

Ryan Neil Lund Executive Director, People's Majority
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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.

This didn’t happen by accident. The GOP consultant, lobbyist and establishment complex — or CLEC — prefers it this way. Democratic consultant Pat Caddell, who coined the CLEC acronym, delivered a blistering critique of this domineering force inside the Republican Party at March’s CPAC conference in Washington.

As Caddell pointed out, win or lose the CLEC is “in the business of lining their pockets.” The CLEC prefers the status quo for two reasons. First, it allows them to sell something to campaigns: their own closed systems in a never-ending revolving door of K Street salesmanship. Second, with zero investment in political intelligence, the CLEC avoids a losing scorecard of underperforming GOTV efforts or cost-per-vote analyses. Simply put, the GOP elders can tell you how much it costs to run for office but none can tell you quantitatively how much it costs to win office.

Republicans don’t need better technology. We need better tech champions who appreciate the value of political intelligence — the combination of voter data with randomized experimental design, a process for testing which messages and tactics actually work, and which ones don’t. If Republicans commit to a political methodology that empirically tests and validates theories, ideas, messages and actions, they will start to raise their political IQ. But the only way to start is to bypass the CLEC that has grown wealthy on over-promising and under-delivering.

This means that the GOP needs to start building a new generation of political strategists and operatives who understand the value of measurement, accountability and open networks. The place to start is Virginia, where Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli will face off against longtime Clinton confidante and quintessential Washington insider Terry McAuliffe.

At first blush, this appears like a no-brainer for the GOP. McAuliffe, who lost to Creigh Deeds by more than 20 points in Virginia’s 2009 Democratic gubernatorial primary, seems like easy pickings. But then again, so did a first-term Illinois legislator with the most liberal voting record in the U.S. Senate.

Just ask Mitt Romney. In 2012, 36,000 Romney volunteers were sitting on the sidelines because of a massive glitch in the campaign’s ORCA system — the much-hyped GOTV system that was DOA on Election Day. The members of old guard who failed in 2012 are now selling to campaign managers and donors in Virginia the same old game plan: flashy demos, empty promises and war stories from a time when fax machines outnumbered computers. Meanwhile, McAuliffe’s folks are digging into the data, building on millions of data points from 10 years of digital GOTV.

If the GOP wants to be a 21st-century player, it’s up to the youth of the party to throw out the CLEC, as epitomized by the four insiders recently hired to man the NRSC digital dungeons. Tech-savvy PACs, start-ups and forward-thinking technology vendors powered by the new generation of tech-savvy Republicans need to stop asking the establishment for permission and start asking GOP donors to invest in the true future of the Grand Old Party: youth and political intelligence.

If the GOP doesn’t see that, it might as well get used to the idea of Governor McAuliffe.

Ryan Neil Lund is the executive director of People’s Majority, a PAC dedicated to transforming today’s information into tomorrow’s political victory with technology powered by randomized experimental design.