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Republican Party's Technology Revival Hopes Hinge On Data and Data Analysis

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, February 7 2013

Republicans using GOP Data Center, the RNC's centralized voter database, logged about 80.5 million voter contacts during the 2012 election, mostly in battleground states. That includes 14.5 million door-knocks in battleground states and another 900,000 in highly competitive races outside of the presidential battleground, according to Republican National Committee spokesman Sean Spicer.

The numbers confirm what Republicans already know: They were whalloped in 2012. In the Obama campaign's "Legacy Report," campaign officials claim volunteers contacted voters nearly twice as often as their Republican counterparts did — about 150 million times. (That number includes volunteer recruitment and voter turnout attempts.)

But the numbers also reveal something that a lot of people seem to have forgotten: Republicans didn't just sit on their hands in 2012. They were knocking on doors and phone-banking — just not as vigorously, and probably not as efficiently, as the Obama campaign's supporters. Nor did the Republicans fail to collect information. Mitt Romney's campaign amassed piles of data on voters, donors and other supporters, which digital director Zac Moffatt has said the campaign transferred to the RNC. During the campaign, Republicans used data to track every absentee ballot from a likely Republican voter and followed up in an effort to ensure that ballot was cast for Romney. While the Romney campaign had fewer data analysts on staff, operatives on both sides believe the Democrats have a deeper bench of people trained in the kind of statistical modeling that may become a staple in future campaigns, and it isn't known how reliable the data was that Republicans were using when they did make data-driven decisions, it isn't as if Republicans this year weren't trying to keep track of what was going on.

It's just they now figure they were doing it wrong. As Republicans lay their plans for 2016 and beyond, top consultants and operatives are reaching four key conclusions about how they misused or underdeveloped their technology and data infrastructure.

The first is that the party was badly beaten thanks to a misallocation of resources and misused talent, not necessarily because of their technology — or lack of technology. This means the Republican situation is dire but not hopeless. Spicer says the party's 2012 missteps came, in part, because tools like voter databases and volunteer management software may not have been used correctly.

"One of the things that people have to understand is the difference between having data and using it properly," the Republican National Committee's communications director, Sean Spicer, told me Jan. 31. "If you know it's 75 degrees out, and you walk outside with a heavy jacket, gloves, and mittens, it doesn't mean that your data was wrong. Your interpretation of the data was wrong."

The second is that the Republican Party failed to dazzle technologically in 2012 thanks, in part, to a lack of preparation.

"One of the problems that appears to have occurred on a pretty widespread basis this cycle is there's a lot from the tech standpoint that they just didn't really seem to be getting in a position to action, or bring online, until pretty much we were getting to the end of the primaries, which is obviously inadequate," says Liz Mair, a Republican communications and technology consultant who was the RNC's online communications director in 2008.

The RNC rolled out GOP Data Center, a revamped version of its voter file and volunteer management software, in time for the 2012 general elections. But the RNC started granting access to the tool far too late, says Alex Stroman, the executive director of the South Carolina Republican Party.

"We didn't have enough time for training," Stroman told me.

This incremental failure was overshadowed by a larger and more monolithic one: ORCA, the Romney campaign's election-day turnout monitoring system, which was also rushed to market. Volunteers complained about the way the system was structured, and then threw up their hands when the entire thing crashed.

Republicans also point out that they had less time to prepare — after all, Romney had to make it through a primary campaign before he could really run against Obama. On the other hand, Obama had to make it through a primary in 2008 — and when he did, an infrastructure built in part with the guiding hand of Democratic chairman Howard Dean was waiting for him. He defeated Sen. John McCain and the Democrats seized a bicameral majority in Congress.

And Romney was a primary candidate in 2008 who arguably could have been preparing his own infrastructure throughout the intervening four years. So, you know, there's that.

The third conclusion is that the party needs to improve the tools it has.

Data Center is a relaunch of Voter Vault, a tool the Republican Party commissioned in 2001 at the behest of a study group brought together by top strategist Karl Rove and that was launched in 2003. It puts a new face on the old software, Stroman says, but it still isn't powerful enough for Republican activists.

"We're driving a Volkswagen Beetle when everyone else is driving a Dodge Charger, is what we're dealing with with Data Center," Stroman says. "I think Data Center is a fine tool. I think Voter Vault was a great tool. But it was created in that 2003, early 2000s kinda time frame, and we're light years ahead of that."

The de-facto standard volunteer management tool for Democrats, VoteBuilder, comes from the software company NGP VAN. VoteBuilder was first launched back in 2004 — but new features have been added and improvements made to it constantly across each cycle since.

The fourth conclusion is that the party's old-boy network of chosen consultants is letting it down, and those consultants are doing so on behalf of candidates who can't win.

"First, a lot of bad candidates have been fielded, and a lot of crappy campaigns have been run. And no, I don’t just mean that candidate whose name immediately popped into your head there," Mair wrote in a recent blog post.

She's not the only one of this opinion: Rove is reportedly backing a political action committee tasked with finding primary challengers for candidates that might be too far to the right for a party hoping to move towards the center.

"Second, and tied in with this, we have too many less-than-cutting-edge and insufficiently creative and/or out-of-date consultants making a lot of money off of said crappy campaigns," Mair continued.

GOP Data Center is maintained by FLS Connect, a software firm that made millions in fees over the course of the presidential campaign. Romney's political director, Rich Beeson, and Tony Feather, a Rove protégé, are partners in FLS Connect. The RNC has also paid FLS Connect for work related to Voter Vault in the past, federal committee finance filings show. Feather is also connected to Targeted Victory, where Romney digital director Zac Moffatt returned after the election.

None of this is particularly irregular. After all, the Democratic Party has dealt almost exclusively with NGP VAN since 2004 and Blue State Digital did a brisk business in 2012 while co-founder Joe Rospars and former employee Teddy Goff were on the Obama re-elect. And it isn't as if FLS Connect didn't build what they were paid by the party to build — even if no one seems willing to say that the software is any good.

But after a loss, the way the business of politics works has begun to look like petty self-dealing to no small number of party members and operatives.

Republicans are also claiming to take to heart the mindset that has become part of the mythology of Obama's 2012 campaign, that data-driven, test-everything ethos. And there are a whole host of other issues bedeviling the party, from "cranks, haters and bigots," to the aforementioned questionable candidates, to the uncertain shape of the next Republican coalition. And then there's the question of election administration, with voter ID laws and last-minute changes to early voting in some states before the 2012 election and talk of reconfiguring the electoral college in some states now. Technology is just one smoking crater in a larger but equally post-apocalyptic landscape.

It's also unclear if what tech consultants are saying jibes with what the party wants to hear. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus is quoted as calling for trainings via Skype and Google Hangouts, not necessarily better voter-file management software or campaigns that hire more technologists.

But behind closed doors, consultants are talking about changes to the infrastructure, say Republicans who would know. They laid the first stones in that foundation before the 2012 election: dovetailed with Data Center is Data Trust, an outside organization that allows more groups to use the Republican Party's data, so long as they bring in other voter data in the process. The arrangement is almost a direct analog to the way the Democratic Party's voter data is set up: A cooperative of the state parties owns the data, and for-profit companies become vendors licensed to traffic in maintenance of or access to that data. But that type of arrangement did not yield the results for Republicans in 2012 that it did for Democrats.

So the Republicans have data, data everywhere, nor any thought to think — except the notion that they need to go back to the lab to revisit all kinds of things, including their approach to data-driven field work.

"That's what folks are trying to figure out now," says Blaise Hazelwood, who was political director at the RNC in 2002 and 2004, and is a founding partner at political consultancy Grassroots Targeting. "What would have to happen to create the big data warehouse and have it to analyze that data and use it the most effectively, that's the bottom line."

"That's being discussed right now," she continued, "and it's in the very preliminary stages."

This post has been corrected. Liz Mair said that the Republican Party was slow to bring software in a "position to action," not "a position of action."