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Republican National Committee's Biggest Challenge Isn't Tech, It's Culture

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Monday, February 10 2014

The Republican's existential brand crisis: What does Republican stand for? Photo: RNC.

The Republican National Committee's launch of its tech incubator Para Bellum Labs last week sparked off several rounds of derision online -- complete with a microsite mocking the committee's effort to adopt Silicon Valley startup culture. But veterans of President Obama's presidential campaigns say that the data and tech deficit isn't the biggest problem facing the Republicans. It's an organizational one.

"My question for the RNC and Para Bellum Labs would be: What measures are they putting in place to guarantee that that infrastructure remains a priority in 2015 and 2017 and 2019?" asked Ethan Roeder, Executive Director of the New Organizing Institute and Obama 2012's Director of Data in an interview. "That's the challenge and problem with housing tech infrastructure like this in a political institution like a party committee. Virtually every two years you have a new chairman with their own priorities and vision, and all it takes is for one chairman to come along on either side to say 'I wonder why we're spending so much money on this. I'm not sure I agree this is where the money is best spent. Maybe the money should be spent on advertising instead.'"

RNC Chairman Reince Priebus was re-elected to head the the committee January 2013, which means that he'll be up again for re-election before the next presidential contest in 2016.

Chuck DeFeo, the RNC's chief digital officer and deputy chief of staff, and Kirsten Kukowski, the RNC's press secretary, stressed in an interview that the current effort is going to be a lasting one.

"We are changing the culture in-house with an incubator similar to what Facebook is doing with their Creative Labs," Kukowski said in an e-mail note. She was referring to Facebook's recent unveiling of a unit within the company that creates new, experimental products designed to help the company to grow in new directions, but without upsetting existing account holders' expectations. "Investing in data, digital and technology is a major priority for donors and is something they want to see more of. We will also see an investment by people on the outside such as Data Trust to help improve and share data on our side."

The point, Kukowski said, is a firm commitment to work to improve the data flows within the party.

"This is why it’s very important that we have a platform for all of our vendors, campaigns, committees on our side to plug into, using common API’s to improve our data up and down the ticket," she said. "We believe having access to our data will help creativity in our party."

Another question on the mind of Ralph Garvin, a San Francisco tech entrepreneur, computer scientist and former field staffer on Obama's 2008 campaign: How will the Republicans execute on whatever insights they garner from their big data efforts?

"It's about infrastructure, partnered organizations, relationships, institutional know-how, knowledge transfer and trust. Like yeast and sugar, these qualities have been fermenting in Democratic barrels longer and at a much greater rate than Republican ones." Referring to Sunday's New York Times feature on the Republicans' tech efforts, he added: "To alter the right-left tech balance, I think they'll need a lot more than 30 engineers and pizza-based hackathons."

Garvin was referring to the army of volunteers and staffers that co-ordinated on Obama's campaign, based on the insights gained from the campaign's data-crunching, a well as the ecosystem of non-profits and startups that now populate the Democratic universe.

By the end of the 2012 campaign, the Obama staff said they opened 813 field offices, deployed 10,000 neighborhood teams and that their efforts were aided by 2.2 million volunteers. Engage, the Republican-leaning tech consulting firm, estimates that the Obama campaign maintained a database of 16 million e-mail addresses.

The RNC is keenly aware of the outreach gap, and it's been working to execute on the recommendations of its post-mortem of the 2012 Presidential election, the Growth and Opportunity Report, which said that it should use its data analytics unit to "develop a specific set of tests for 2013 and 2014 — tests on voter registration, persuasion, GOTV, and voter mobilization — that will then be adopted into future programs to ensure that our voter contact and targeting dollars are spent on proven performance."

So despite their challenges, the Republicans' focus is something that should make the Democrats sit up -- even if it is easy to laugh, said Roeder (It was a NOI staffer that co-authored the parody version of Para Bellum's site.)

"The energy and the motivation that I'm seeing on the Republican side right now, quite frankly, isn't matched by what I'm seeing on the Democratic side ... Every single cycle, every single cycle, Democrats need to be fighting to innovate, and working to create new products and solutions in order to maintain a competitive edge, but in my opinion, Republicans are hungrier right now and working harder."