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With New CTO Search, Can GOP Find Tech Talent to Compete With Democrats?

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, March 12 2013

The Republican National Committee ended some speculation about its technological future Tuesday by announcing that it is searching for a chief technology officer who would be responsible for building a plan, and a budget, for a new Republican strategy centered around data, technology, and digital activism.

It's clear the Republican Party is trying to play catch-up with the Democrats. Since 2004, Democrats have been giving programmers, data analysts and technology entrepreneurs ever-greater roles. While any alumnus of President Barack Obama's 2012 re-election campaign will tell you that it was field organizing that won the campaign for the president, software and data analysis allowed volunteers and managers alike to work more efficiently. The campaign used technology and data expertise to optimize every aspect of its operations, from door-knocking to placing TV advertisements.

What's unclear is if the Republican Party will be able to recruit the same kind of programmers, engineers and technology executives as Democrats.

"The ultimate goal is, unlike the campaigns, which had a certain number of months or years to accomplish a goal, we have to build something that can withstand time," RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said Tuesday.

The first goal will be to "beat the DNC" to having a sustainable strategy for data, digital operations, and technology management, she said. To accomplish that, the party will bring those three aspects of operations all under the direction of a CTO. Kukowski said this is meant, in part, as a signal to the party faithful that the RNC is serious about making a change — and it's encouraging news for Republican digital veterans.

"I've long said that a real problem in Republican politics is that you have way too many people running digital operations that are political operatives first and technologists second," wrote Liz Mair, a former RNC digital communications director, in an email to me Tuesday.

This stands in contrast to former RNC staff like former digital strategist Cyrus Krohn, who came to the party after working as publisher at Slate and in top content strategy roles at Microsoft and Yahoo. Former RNC digital director Todd Herman also came to the party from Microsoft.

"If you want to turn the ship around, you need to find the new Cyrus Krohn, hire him or her-- and then you need to make sure that that person has the budget they need and a free hand to get done what must get done, without being subject to the constraints you too often find in political operations," Mair said. "So, this looks like a good start."

Today's announcement may end months of squabbling among digital consultants who allowed their unhappiness with what some called an "old boy network" of outside firms to spill over into the press. In the course of these arguments, many digital operatives offered ideas about what the party should do to catch up to the Democrats — but none had source code in hand that might prove that they had what it takes to lead the party's technological efforts.

"A lot of people are trying to get in the mix and be the solution," one Republican digital expert told me prior to Tuesday's announcement. "Nobody has a solution. Nobody's built anything. They're just saying they're going to be the guy to build this product."

The RNC is looking for someone to lead a reckoning for Republican political technology and to make decisions about how to fix what's broken. The party and presidential campaign's technology vendors and consultants came under fire for racking up tens of millions of dollars in bills in 2012 without the electoral results to show for it.

The party's new CTO wouldn't just have to face down a Democratic Party leadership that, by 2016, will have been doing for about twelve years what he or she would have to start doing now. The CTO would also have to defeat the dynamics of the political software industry, a multi-million dollar sector where personal relationships and sharp-elbowed maneuvering by vendors makes it very hard to start something new. The Republican technology industry already has a long history, and it reads nothing like the way progressive technologists established the ecosystem Democrats now enjoy.

Howard Dean let young technologists into his campaign in 2004 and let them experiment and try new things. After his 2004 campaign imploded in Iowa, many of those technologists went off to found Blue State Digital, one of two key firms that build the tools Democrats use to get elected. Dean became the Democratic Party chairman, and BSD was able to land the Party as a key early client.

"Its hard to be an upstart, a disruptive play in this space," Clay Johnson, a co-founder of Blue State Digital who has since left political consulting, told me in January as I was reporting this article. "The reason why is so much of it has to do with personal relationships with candidates. Had Terry McAuliffe remained as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, it's likely that Blue State Digital would still be a 20-30 person shop, if in business at all."

The other key company providing technology to democrats is NGP VAN, a merger of the fundraising compliance software provider NGP and the voter file management software vendor VAN. In 2001, a Democratic operative named Mark Sullivan and a computer programmer named Steven Corey Adler built software to help Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin and Gov. Tom Vilsack get re-elected. They build a suite to help manage these campaigns' lists of voters — who had been contacted, who was a potential voter worth contacting — because, Mark Sullivan told me in 2010, no one was doing that well at the time. So, when Democratic presidential contenders swept through Iowa on the 2004 campaign trail, they learned that the voter file there was in VAN software. The company continued to expand its market share until, in 2007, VAN struck a deal with the Democratic Party, and VAN went national. Now nearly every Democratic volunteer and staffer uses VAN's VoteBuilder software in the course of their work for a campaign. True, the DNC stepped in after 2007 to pick a winner in the market. But VAN, at least in its co-founder's telling — and thanks in part to some strategic placement as the vendor of choice in Iowa — was already becoming a de-facto standard.

Republicans have a de-facto standard for voter file management, too. It's called GOP Data Center, and it was built by FLS Connect, a firm that some Republican consultants say is part of that "old boy network." Republican operatives don't like GOP Data Center very much. They only got access to it at around the time the Republican primaries ended in 2012, so they didn't have enough time to get volunteers familiar with the software. It was a relaunch of Voter Vault, software also maintained by FLS Connect. Voter Vault was created at the behest of the Republican National Committee after it convened a task force in the wake of the close 2000 election to make sure that 2004 wasn't going to be as much of a white-knuckle ride for Republicans. Built first on a national scale and handed down to the state parties, Voter Vault was panned as hard to use. It never became as ubiquitously adopted for voter file management as VAN was on the left. Headed into 2012, GOP Data Center was supposed to occupy the same role as VAN does for Democrats in a system for managing volunteers and voter data that Republicans designed from the top down to emulate the left. It just doesn't seem to have worked out as planned.

"The astonishing thing to me is that they're really wrestling with concrete issues that we dealt with over a decade ago," Sullivan told me recently.

Republican technologists have fared just as poorly in front-end development, which deals in the websites people see and the tools they use to donate their money or their time. Blue State Digital, which sells these sorts of services and software, landed client after client after 2008. After November 2012, Blue State was looking to recruit Obama for America alumni. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney's technology consultants went to Washington, D.C. after the election to explain what went wrong with the campaign and try to pass along lessons learned.

"We're proud to stand by our work," Zac Moffatt, Romney's former digital director and co-founder of a digital consultancy that did millions of dollars' worth of work for the campaign, Targeted Victory, said in a Feb. 25 phone conversation. "Whether or not we had a more sophisticated Facebook strategy doesn't change that we were outspent two to one by the Obama campaign."

And, for what it's worth, Moffatt will argue the merits of his Facebook strategy, too.

"As a conservative, the marketplace is the ultimate arbiter of who provides good products," Moffatt said at another point in our conversation. "And if people are unsatisfied they'll look to move."

Prior to Tuesday's announcement, Republican digital consultants were looking for a signal from the party leadership that the RNC was listening to demands to modernize, to bring new voices to the table in internal decision-making. Some of their number think this is the opportunity to begin from a "clean slate."

One digital consultant suggests that the party has a chance to make a "fresh start," and that trip "back to the drawing board" in the post-2012 world is a good thing.

"On the left, there's a lot of different products floating around," this person said. "Even NationBuilder's sort of moved center —" NationBuilder was founded as a non-partisan organizing software company and struck a deal with the Republican State Leadership Committee in 2012 — "but there's still a lot of Republicans who won't use NationBuilder because it has left-leaning founders."

"I think we're going to see an ecosystem on the right with a lot of different products," this person continued.

Maybe true. But if the Republican Party expects to build that ecosystem, it will need not just a single CTO but several real developers — coders nobody seems to have met, that do not appear to have been working for the party in 2012, and that nobody seems to be able to call by name. Krohn, the former RNC digital strategist, was Slate's publisher and worked in content strategy roles. Herman's background is in Internet radio.

"I know from growing up in Seattle and maintaining connections there that there are Republicans who do more technical work, who work or have worked at some of the bigger companies that are based out there," Mair told me. "I'm not going to get into naming names, because as you know, if word gets around that someone is being recruited for something, even if it's something they'd turn down, that can create real issues for them in their current jobs."

"We don't have as many people with the chops on this side of the aisle," she continued. "But they do exist, even in small numbers."

Kukowski, the RNC spokeswoman, added that the party will focus on training operatives in technology and in working with data going forward.

"We do understand as a party we need to do a better job of training and bringing these people onboard and that is going to take a commitment from the RNC, but also from conservative digital data and tech people, that we band together and we bring people into the party," she said.