The GOP Talent Gap

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Memo to donors: Fixing the Republican Party's technology issues will require human capital, not just programs.

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A Beverly Hills fundraiser for Romney in September (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

The 2012 election should be a wake-up call for those who raise and spend money for the Republican Party.

All too often, how we run campaigns has been untethered from scientific rigor, and without any real-time certainty whether something is working or not. Aggressiveness is praised, and hard-hitting TV ads have come to be seen as the sine qua non of an aggressive campaign. Thanks to this worldview, billions were poured into presidential and down-ballot television advertisements out of a conviction that these ads would move numbers. 

Donors, for their part, were continually pressed to double down on more ads. Tweeted Republican media strategist Rick Wilson, quoting a conversation with a mega-donor, "Every *ing conf call, 'We're good but we need 1000 more GRP in X state...no one, not even me, drilling in enough.'"

But if all these ads had the desired effect, it was not always apparent in the election returns. That should be obvious to Republicans from the fact that Obama won reelection, while the Democrats picked up two U.S. Senate seats. But it's also apparent at the county level in some cases, and in unexpected ways.

Take the case of Lucas County, Ohio. For all the talk of the pummeling Romney received in paid media over the auto bailout, Obama fared no better than he did in other urban centers statewide in Lucas County, home of auto-centric Toledo (the town Jeep was supposed to be shipping jobs from, according to a Romney ad). Nor was Lucas County was among the 18 Ohio counties -- mostly in the south of the state -- where the president did better than he did in 2008.

While television ads still play an important role, particularly downballot, the election results clearly show that Republican campaigns need to be just as aggressive with their grassroots outreach, online persuasion, and data collection and analysis as their media buys.

After the 2008 election, Obama's campaign manager David Plouffe outlined a key shift in how the campaign had set priorities for itself. The campaign spent its first dollars fully funding grassroots organizers in swing states, and then funded TV out of what was left over. A groundbreaking digital operation ensured that the campaign had ample resources to do both. The Obama re-election campaign repeated the strategy.

Given how Obama's ground game helped him outperform the final polling margins in key swing states this year, such as Florida and Colorado, the fact that the Republican campaign class has failed to adapt is striking.

How might future Republican campaigns and outside groups spend money differently?

A disproportionate amount of postmortem coverage has focused on Obama's data and technology operation which was bigger -- though also qualitatively different -- than 2008. Instead of relying on the magic of a youthful candidate, big rallies, and racking up a billion minutes of view time on YouTube, Obama 2012 used quantitative analysis to squeeze out every last advantage it could, reflecting the "grind it out" mentality of this year's campaign.

Given the attention, it would be only natural for GOP donors and operatives looking for ways to win in 2014 and 2016 to fixate on replicating the Big Data campaign and seek out data scientists, behavioral economists, and silver-bullet technologies in an effort to catch up.

They'll need to: It is true that the Democrats are ahead in the race to master the science of winning elections. But technology isn't everything. And if Republicans take the wrong lessons from this defeat, they could find themselves in an even bigger hole four years from now.

Recruit the Best and the Brightest, From Everywhere

The most pressing and alarming deficit Republican campaigns face is in human capital, not technology. From recruiting Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes in 2008, to Threadless CTO Harper Reed in 2012, Democrats have imported the geek culture of Silicon Valley's top engineers into their campaigns. This has paid significant dividends for two election cycles running.

We can partially predict what the mature technologies of 2016 will be by looking at what the new ones were this year. 

Technology is ideologically neutral and can be built or appropriated by either party. A campaign workforce well versed in the skills needed to win the modern campaign is much harder to replicate than a program. Creative thinking is a necessity.

While there are many brilliant minds in the upper echelons of the Republican data and technology world -- including those who built the first national voter file -- the bench is not very deep. The Republican campaign world by and large does not demand technologically deep solutions, or much more than a glorified WordPress blog for campaign websites. Thus, the market largely does not supply them.

Facing a shortage of tech talent, campaigns largely treat digital as an entry-level job or draft talent from their field operation. While these young operatives thrive in the rapid-fire world of social media, longer-term data and technology projects can fall by the wayside. Thus, when it comes time to build intensive applications like the ill-fated Orca, Republican campaigns must go far afield to non-political vendors who don't understand the special kind of hell that is Election Day.

Whether recruited from Silicon Valley or not, it is clear that Chicago assembled a team of the highest caliber developers, designers, number-crunchers and user experience people in the country. It was technology masterfully executed, with a human touch.

Does this mean that this Democratic advantage is permanent? It will be if the operatives and funders in the Republican Party come to believe that the problem is merely one of buying a few shiny tech objects, rather than doing the hard work of recruiting a new generation of technical and data talents to remake the culture of Republican campaigns.

Today, Republican campaigns think they have the data box checked when they buy a voter file or do rudimentary website "cookie" targeting.

This is data dumbed-down, and it's not how the Obama campaign won.

What really matters is extracting insight from the sea of data to determine what is actually happening on the ground. Leveraging it requires a specialized set of skills you don't normally find in politics, where you typically focus on maximizing the raw number of voter contacts. Every campaign needs analysts whose job it is to run regression analyses on that night's wave of voter ID calls to find hidden patterns in the data, and continually optimizing based on performance.

The tools to do this, at least in the world of data analysis, are mature and ready to use by both parties. A story about how Target was able to look at purchase history to infer that a teenage girl was pregnant before her own father knew achieved mythical status after it was published by New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit. The data scientist who came up with the algorithm lived in a sleepy (and likely deep red) Minneapolis suburb. Data modeling isn't the exclusive province of liberal precincts in Palo Alto; it has been a staple of corporate America (and on Wall Street) for years, driving billions in profits.

Republicans must look for new blood to fill this talent gap everywhere -- from the libertarian-minded minority in Silicon Valley to corporate America. Republican donors should only invest in projects that focus on talent first. For tech startups that go big, it's usually not because of the technology, but because of the team.

Don't Copy -- Jump to the Next Curve

In 2004, email and websites were new and by 2008, they were mature. In 2008, social media was new and by 2012, it was mature. In 2012, mobile and data science were the two emerging trends in political campaigns. These are likely to be mature technologies that operate at a significantly larger scale in 2016.

Technology entrepreneurs are constantly fighting to "jump to the next curve," avoiding obsolescence to ride the wave of a rising technology from newness to maturity. We can partially predict what the mature technologies of 2016 will be by looking at what the new ones were this year.

Just as venture capitalists would reject pitches from companies aiming to become the next Facebook or Google, as their business models seem fairly secure, Republican donors should apply a similar framework to evaluating technology projects. Is the project trying to solve a problem which has already been solved, or whose relevance is on the decline? If so, they shouldn't invest.

Sometimes, problems persist for a long time until a shift in the technology makes a solution possible. Success with mobile donations has long eluded campaigns, until the Obama campaign's "Quick Donate" which stored supporters credit card information and allowed them, in the words of supporters I've tweeted with, to "drunk donate" with a single click.

Test Everything

Campaign operatives are not all-knowing seers, and even the best have weathered their share of defeats. The industry needs a much-needed dose of modesty, and every claim about what works and what doesn't needs to be subjected to rigorous testing and evaluation, especially in a world where media budgets have not caught up to the fact that an increasing amount of content is consumed online.

Operatives -- even digital ones -- need to be willing to subject everything they do to randomized experiments to show what's working and what isn't. (If we did, we'd likely never hear another GOTV robocall again.) The top performers may not be the ones who hit on the first try -- but those who can tweak and adjust to achieve the best result over the long run. In a political industry known for its brashness, the key to success moving forward may be an introspective and intellectually curious mindset that comes with constant testing and refinement. This year showed that false certainty in the tried-and-true tactics of yesteryear cannot be an option in 2016.

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Patrick Ruffini is the president of Engage, a Washington, D.C.-based digital agency serving candidates, causes, and Fortune 500 companies. He has worked on digital media for presidential candidates in the last three campaign cycles.

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