Bridging the Political Technology Gap

Mike Osborn
California Republican Party Treasurer

Remember 2008? It was primed to be the first election cycle where Internet technology would play a prominent role in campaign strategy. The political world was buzzing about how innovations like Facebook, Twitter, text messaging, and smartphones would be used.

At the time, consultants were committed to making better websites, providing online organizing tools and analytics, and hiring “new media directors” to create email and social media channels. We were discussing major changes to GOTV efforts, but that was still somewhere in the distance. Every campaign had some kind of dedicated digital operation but certainly nothing that flowed through every level of its operation.

And then came 2012.

Obama’s tech tsunami revolutionized campaign strategy, incorporating high tech to everything it did. Communication, organizing, polling, targeting, fundraising – everything was analyzed through a dizzying volume of information. It created a scorched-earth GOTV army that collected data on every voter contacted, from high-propensity Democrats to low-information Republicans, that allowed Obama’s senior staff to become so good at predicting what to do, it eviscerated the traditional gut instinct, consultant-driven approach of the Romney campaign.

And in the aftermath of a stunning defeat, Republicans woke up to a frightening realization:

We’re a Palm Pilot party in an iPhone world.

The differences are staggering and disturbing. Take Facebook, for example. The Obama campaign didn’t just figure out which Facebook users to share stuff with. They were also looking at everyone’s list of friends, because they discovered that 98% of all Facebook users knew someone who likes Obama and 85% of all young voters were friends with someone already in Obama’s Facebook database.

The Obama campaign used the merged data to create contact lists that connected Facebook friends with targeted content. It gets even more amazing: Obama for America asked supporters who signed up for their Facebook app to pick potential voters from among their friends in swing states and urge them to get to the ballot box or register to vote. OFA officials told Time’s Michael Scherer that a staggering 20 percent of people asked by their Facebook friends to register, vote or take another activity went ahead and did it.

Fortunately, the Democrats’ tech dominance doesn’t have to be insurmountable. Technology is ideologically neutral. But to join the fray in the most effective manner, we must immediately commit to funding and developing new media talent and strategies, and incorporate them into the brave new world of the Permanent Campaign.

In other words, Republicans need to get their nerd on, in a hurry. And California Republicans, if for no other reason than our natural proximity to Silicon Valley, need to go to Top Geek school.

Here are just a few of the necessary steps we need to take:

  • Make technology the centerpiece of all political efforts. It’s no longer a luxury. It’s an imperative.
  • Attract and hire tech talent for party operations, caucuses and targeted campaigns. Outsourcing new media to vendors means you lose control and the ability to adapt to changing conditions. Let’s create a formidable in-house team of techsters to keep us on the leading edge of political innovation.
  • Prioritize new media campaigns to create direct connections and avoid guesswork. There are a significant number of voters that are mathematically unreachable through television and radio. Almost 60% of voters 18-29 are unreachable by phone. We should demand that vendors place the most value on relationships, not ratings points and call-outs. Ratings points are just guesses and call-outs are inconsistent. Sign-ups, donations, “shares” and votes are results.
  • Republicans must join as many of the online communities that are out there as possible. That means reaching beyond Facebook and Twitter and learn how to navigate new social media platforms such as LinkedIn, Reddit, and Github to start building our own technology communities.
  • Create a statewide program to gather tech experts together and share best practices. Foster technology projects. Offer new media training sessions to local groups and county central committees.
  • Build the infrastructure for our 2016 presidential nominee now. Start by commissioning a team to create a Republican version of Obama’s Narwhal system.
  • Start sharing data – Democrats have gathered a network of affiliates over the past decade that has consistently shared voter information fed into a single database at a scale exponentially larger than any combination of GOP committees.

The stakes are high. Democrats in 2012 were able to use social media to find new voters and ensure they get to the polls. They also customized campaign messages for targeted groups — such as sending mailings about protecting reproductive rights to women under 40. That strategy almost single-handedly knocked out Dan Lungren.

And keep in mind that political superiority can be matched at the speed of innovation. The Democrats were smarting over their presidential losses in 2000 and 2004, thanks to Karl Rove’s smothering grassroots strategy. They created the Voter Activation Network as a result, a mammoth, ongoing database that has been tracking the interests, voting histories, family circumstances and much more on more than 150 million voters since 2006.

Republicans can start bridging the political technology gap with a bold new initiative with its roots here in California, and, with our leadership, avoid the embarrassment of 2012 and the poll-defying voter turnout that led to Democratic victories across the ballot. Until then, Republicans will continue to stare at an empty scoreboard for as long as we ignore the fact that the message doesn’t matter if it can’t get delivered.

Mike Osborn is currently serving as Chairman of the Ventura County Republican Party and is running for re-election as state party Treasurer.

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