Imagine a volunteer for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Arkansas, trying to assist Rep. Tom Cotton in his race against Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, knocks on a voter's door in Little Rock and discovers the potential GOP supporter owns a gun.
In the world of voter outreach, it's a potentially crucial piece of information; with the right pitch from a group like the National Rifle Association, for instance, it could prove decisive in getting that voter to pull the lever for Cotton. Except, in years past, it's also the kind of information that the two separate groups would never share with each other, at least not by November.
Beginning this week, Republicans are trying to change that. Data Trust — a privately operated entity backed by the Republican National Committee that maintains a master list of voter information nationwide — is rolling out a marquee technical upgrade that will allow Republican campaigns and their allies to share voter information with one another in real time. The new feature will let campaigns and approved outside groups not only access voter information anytime (with their own data software) but update it instantly, so others viewing the voter lists can see the information immediately.
Hypothetically, if the Chamber of Commerce and NRA both used Data Trust, the gun-rights group could learn about the Little Rock gun owner minutes after the chamber reached out to him or her, and have its own volunteer on the voter's doorstep the next day.
The data-sharing upgrade is a potentially important development for the midterm elections; its designers hope campaigns will have enough time in the next four months to adopt the upgrade. But perhaps more importantly, it is a not-insignificant milestone in the Republican Party's years-long effort to close the so-called "data and technological divide" between itself and Democrats. Democratic candidates and their allies' effective use of data is one reason their political operations were considered superior in the 2012 elections, and why Republicans vowed in the aftermath of those races to improve their own capabilities.
It's also something that's available not just to behemoths like the chamber, NRA, or major Senate campaigns but to the smallest of operations, John DeStefano, president of Data Trust, told National Journal in an interview. The hope, he said, is that all allies of the Republican Party can work together to build an unrivaled "foundation" of voter information.
"It's a huge step," he said. "I think we as a party, if we're going to be successful, we need to get everybody — from the individual computer-science-majoring college Republican to the large accomplished data firms — on the same page and all working toward the same goal. And this helps accomplish that."
Hurdles remain. For one thing, every one of the hundreds if not thousands of Republican groups will have to adopt the system and then use it correctly. And Republicans have been reluctant in the past to share information with even their allies, part of what many operatives say is a cultural problem with the party that is its main obstacle to catching Democrats on the data and tech front.
And even if all goes according to plan, it's not as if Democrats don't have the same capability already.
"I'm not sure the way to measure our success is based on where Democrats are and where they have been," DeStefano said. "We took a hard look at what we needed to do to get our team on the same page. ... As long as we as a party can continue to work together to get folks to understand how important it is to share as much info as we can, we're going to be successful."
Data Trust was picked by party leaders in spring of 2013 for an exclusive data-sharing agreement with the RNC, with the idea being that a privately held company could become the de-facto clearinghouse for all voter information for the Republican Party.
Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect Data Trust's exclusive data-sharing agreement with the RNC.