It’s been 9 months since President Obama handily beat Governor Mitt Romney and ever since there has been an endless stream of articles about the data-centered operation to which many credit the President’s campaign success. Articles have ranged from discussions of the personalities of the campaign’s technologists, to their advanced advertising targeting, and even the increase in online giving from 2008. Other articles have been so specific that they’ve dug into the science of email subject lines and the vast discrepancy between opens, clicks, and conversions depending on specific written copy.
With only three months until what will likely be a close gubernatorial race in Virginia, the Republican Party as a whole still needs to move forward, and quickly. Don’t get me wrong, there certainly has been some progress made. The old-school RNC made a slew of high profile hires of people who have bought into the digital/data approach to campaigns, including Andy Barkett, an engineer from Facebook who will serve as the Committee’s Chief Technology Officer. The Republican institutions set up to grow the caucuses in the House and Senate (NRCC & NRSC) have also seen more money and increased staff flow into the digital arena. Despite these gains, the Republican Party campaign culture and thinking remains significantly behind the curve.
Mashable had an article out last week which highlighted a recent study stating, “The amount of time Americans spend consuming digital media is set to eclipse the amount of time spent watching television for the first time this year.” This is a fundamental shift in media consumption that should impact campaign, Super PAC, and committee budgets and spending, but it hasn’t. Perhaps it’s our capitalistic nature but often Republican budgets and spending aren’t based on facts and consumer data but instead on replicating “tried and true” tactics that have lined consultants’ pockets for decades. Because hey, if television spending got a Republican elected to the Senate in 1992, why change in 2014?
President Obama’s team and the Democrats understand that the web is not simply a piggy bank, a place Republicans see only as a tool to raise money to then be placed on television advertisements. Instead Democrats view the web as students of facts should, it’s a place where over 180 million Americans are on Facebook and voters spend more time consuming news and seeking out information than any other medium. Oh, and by the way, the Internet is also the most trusted source of information according to a bipartisan study taken post 2012 election. Despite these facts, many campaigns and outside groups don’t properly fund search-advertising budgets, the only paid form of communications that reach voters exactly at their important information-seeking time of decision.
Republicans have to break the mindset that money is only allocated online with the caveat that every dollar spent has a positive return on investment. Money spent on television does not have a direct link to a donor but digital media as a whole is held to an absurdly different standard. Additionally, digital advertising can be targeted to the individual level and matched to the voter file, something that expensive and inefficient television buys cannot replicate.
Based on academic research concerning how voters process information, political scientist John Tedesco stated, “Information that’s interactive has a greater use in gaining political information than that content which is unidirectional”, yet the default campaign for Republicans is unidirectional. Sure, it’s easier and more comfortable to push messages AT voters but it’s not what digital users expect and want. Online users want engagement and expect their elected officials to listen to them, not simply push Facebook statuses and email solicitations to them with no follow through.
All of the articles on Obama’s data operation have driven candidates and campaign staff into a frenzy, bringing rise to charlatan “data scientists” who are hardly qualified to run a phone bank. Republican operatives are expecting to go from sitting in the dugout to hitting home runs without wanting to actually play ball. Campaigns looking to replicate the success of President Obama’s operation should begin with using a centralized database that tracks every type of voter contact in one location. Yes, it’s new. Yes, there’s some learning involved, but if we want to move the Republican party forward we are all going to have to step outside of our comfort zone.
Television is important and has its place in a campaign but Republicans cannot afford to continue pushing the facts aside to benefit friendly relationships at the expense of winning elections.