GOP digital revamp sees mixed results two years after report

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent
Bryan Munks, 19, of Arlington, Va., left, and Priscilla Houk, 17, of Fairfax, Va., make calls for the Romney campaign while wearing quick response code stickers, known as QR codes, in Fairfax, Va., on Tuesday, June 19, 2012. The presidential ground game has gone high tech, marrying old-school organizing work with innovative digital tools. The T-shirts that Romney campaign volunteers wear in Virginia feature a digital code that voters can zap with their smart phones to learn more about the Republican presidential hopeful, which gives Romney field organizers valuable information on how to reach them in the future. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

WASHINGTON – The most important thing that Republicans did over the past two years to improve their data and technology came at the end of August.

That’s when Data Trust, the private company that functions as an offshoot of the Republican National Committee, announced that it would begin sharing information from its voter file with i360, the entity created by the Koch brothers to house its own voter file and data analytics tools.

For the first time ever, the two biggest voter-file-gathering operations on the right would be working together. They would remain independent of each other, but benefit from the information-gathering work of each other's volunteers. The data flows would go both ways, and the RNC would for the first time have access to the outside groups' data.

“It’s exactly what we needed to do,” said Gerrit Lansing, digital director at the National Congressional Campaign Committee. The move put the party “orders of magnitude ahead of where we were two years ago,” he noted—a view widely shared by key Republican digital operatives interviewed by Yahoo News.

The 2012 presidential election had set off a round of introspection inside the GOP after the Romney campaign failed to beat President Barack Obama. Republicans had been surprised on Election Day when their vote-counting and turnout technology repeatedly crashed, forcing the campaign to fly blind at a critical moment and preventing them from doing last-minute voter targeting. A Republican National Committee election autopsy issued after months of soul-searching study concluded that Republicans had innovated far too little in the realm of data and technology, and inadequately tested what they came up with before they deployed it. If they wanted to take the White House in 2016, they would need to do better. They would need to catch up with the Democrats as quickly as possible.

Since then, Republicans have made significant progress in many areas, but recent conversations with insiders on both sides of the aisle reveal that Republicans still face major structural challenges in the digital arena that will take time – in some cases, years – to overcome.

The sharing agreement between the RNC and the Kochs was not easy to arrange. The RNC had legal questions about whether a party committee and an outside group could share voter data without violating federal law. Democrats, in fact, still accuse them of violating the law and have filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission.

The suit argues that the RNC and the Kochs "appear to be illegally coordinating through the ongoing exchange of non-public strategic campaign and party data, resulting in millions of dollars in prohibited contributions from Super PACs and corporations to Republican campaigns and parties."

Getting the two sides to cooperate was also an obstacle, insiders told Yahoo News. One source at a party committee referred to it as a “power struggle” between the two groups over who would control data collected by volunteers and paid staff on the ground. Three sources, including two senior party committee officials, said Andy Barkett, the RNC’s chief technology officer, had been an obstacle to a deal, and that his departure from Data Trust and reduced role at the RNC since late spring smoothed the way for the agreement.

Barkett, a former Facebook engineer, disputes this view, and his supporters attribute the criticism to personal grudges over the way he bluntly, even acerbically, criticized the status quo and named names.

“I have always supported collaboration between the Data Trust and i360 and am glad to hear they have pursued it,” Barkett said in an email. He now splits his time between the RNC and other projects.

While relations between the RNC and the Koch empire have outwardly improved, theirs remains an uneasy truce. The data-sharing agreement gives the central party a boost, allowing it to make up data-gathering ground it had lost to outside groups, but it also strengthens the Koch empire by giving its analytics firm an array of information the Republican Party has gathered on voters. What the Koch groups do with that data going forward is not something the RNC has any control over, and vice versa.

“i360 and Data Trust are playing nice right now, even though they all hate each other,” said one senior party committee official. “It’ll be interesting how that plays out in the [Republican presidential] primary.”

Nonetheless, the official said, “if you look at two years ago, there was no centralized database, and now there are two, and for the time being, they are talking to one another.”

When asked where else the party has made progress since the 2012 election, and where it still needs to improve, the Republican players generally hit on a couple of common themes.

On the positive side, the efforts by RNC Chairman Reince Priebus and his lieutenants Mike Shields and Chuck DeFeo have yielded the list-sharing agreement, and in the field, Republicans are making better use of API’s—application programming interfaces, which allow automated flows of large quantities of detailed information— to move data from ground-game organizers to central databases and back again, in real time. Just two years ago, feeding canvassing information back to a database was done manually most of the time.

The RNC itself has invested heavily in hiring new data staff to increase its capacity to refresh and enhance voter data, and to improve its modeling of voter universes in key races. RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said that 70 percent of its volunteers are using smartphone apps, not paper, when they knock on doors. In contrast, according to one Democratic data company executive, only about 30 percent of Democratic Party canvassers use smartphone apps rather than paper, in part because the average Republican volunteer has a higher income than the average Democratic volunteer, and is thus more likely to have a smartphone.

Republicans have also made progress in their campaign culture, sources said. The party committees have redrawn their organizational charts and rethought spending decisions in order to place data and technology at the center of their operations. For example, the RNC’s political director, finance director and communications director all outranked the digital director in 2012. Now, the digital director is senior to all three of those positions. DeFeo, the current digital director, is also the RNC deputy chief of staff. Across the country, many GOP campaigns have made the same adjustments, the Republicans who spoke to Yahoo said.

The RNC has also improved the utility of its email database by integrating it with the voter file. It is now much easier to request an absentee ballot or to find an early voting location through vote.gop.com, and the RNC is helping Republican candidates track the responses to that site, to flag voters they need to follow up with. The RNC is also using social media targeting to encourage supporters to urge their friends to vote, which they say has helped their early vote efforts in Iowa and Colorado.

In addition, the ecosystem of young digital or data companies on the right is bigger and more mature than it was two years ago. The top-tier newer companies include Targeted Victory, cofounded by Zac Moffatt, the digital director for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, and Michael Beach, a former RNC aide; Deep Root Analytics, cofounded by former Bush White House political director Sara Fagen and Alex Lundry, the data science director on Romney’s presidential campaign; IMGE, founded by veteran operative Phil Musser and Alex Skatell, the former digital director at the National Republican Senatorial Committee; Harris Media, headed up by Mitch McConnell’s digital strategist, Vincent Harris; Engage, founded by Patrick Ruffini, a former digital strategist and organizer at the RNC and on George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign; and Push Digital, powered by two South Carolina Republicans, Wesley Donehue and Joel Sawyer. Newer groups include 0ptimus, Cardinal Insights and Campaign Grid.

There is plenty of resentment among Republicans about the way that Democrats are usually portrayed in the press as futuristic data geniuses while Republicans are often described as Neanderthals.

“The thing that’s frustrating to us is we only get asked about when we’re going to copy what the Democrats have done,” Beach said.

Beach and Moffatt said they believe they have moved ahead of the Democrats in some areas. In particular, they said their tools allowing campaigns of all sizes to target TV and digital video ads to voters in specific narrow categories and to track the performance of video ads online through a system called Targeted Engagement, is better than what Democrats are offering.

Moffatt and Beach hope to take the GOP away from a “TV-first mentality” when it comes to advertising, but so far, both parties are locked into spending millions of dollars on the airwaves when they could divert some of that money from network TV to cable, or to online ads, which can be much more effective and cost less.

Moffatt argued in a blog post recently that more than $80 million had been wasted in congressional races since Labor Day, because campaigns were pouring money into TV markets that broadcast well beyond the congressional district being contested. “We’re trying to modernize the 80 percent of the budget that gets spent inefficiently,” Beach said.

Fagen said Republicans have also pulled even with Democrats in their ability to give tools to Republicans who want to more precisely target TV ads to specific shows and times to best reach specific types of voters. “I think we’ve caught them,” she said.

Separately, Skatell, at IMGE, said that “one area that’s clearly gotten better is creative. There’s actual graphic designers who are building creative for ad campaigns or emails. It's not press secretaries creating it."

Nonetheless, Democrats continue to have a few huge, fundamental advantages over Republicans.

To the extent there are ongoing power struggles over who controls and owns voter data— between private companies, political campaigns and state parties—it is largely because many on the right have yet to entirely buy in to the idea that, as Moffatt put it, “Data is a commodity that can be shared, and you can build on top of it.” Too many Republican consultants and state parties still see data as an asset to be hoarded, rather than a tool that gains power and value the more it is shared with and used by like-minded allies.

Similarly, not every GOP campaign has yet acknowledged that digital and data management should be put at the center of their efforts. “Sophisticated ad buys and ground games are scattershot right now,” the senior party committee official said. Conservative blogger Erick Erickson shared the story of a friend who knocked on doors for a Republican candidate – which a source identified as Barbara Comstock’s campaign for Congress in Virginia’s 10th District – and was given a walk list that included every house on some streets, rather than a list that targeted likely Republican voters.

In the world of online advertising, “There hasn’t been a lot of education about how you’re supposed to know if it’s going well,” said a principal at one of the top GOP digital companies.

Unlike the GOP, Democrats remain united around one technology platform, the awkwardly named NGP VAN, which they use to gain access to their voter data and to feed information into their voter files. This helps reduce the learning curve for new volunteers and staff, and allows personnel to move seamlessly from race to race and state to state without having to waste precious time learning new technology. That may not sound particularly impressive, but it is significant.

Republicans do not have a single interface. In fact, the RNC’s failure to roll out its Beacon VRM (voter relationship management) tool until this summer created a vacuum, and many campaigns opted to use other options, such as i360, Voter Gravity, or NationBuilder, a nonpartisan company with roots in progressive politics. Every time a campaign signs up to use a program other than the RNC’s VRM interface, fresh voter information is fed back to a file different from the one owned by the RNC. This explains why it was imperative for the RNC to reach an agreement with i360, to be able to access all its data.

Republicans also don’t have the kind of analytics capabilities and knowledge that Democrats do, mostly because they haven’t been doing it for as long. “Even the best analysts refine their equations and algorithms based on real-world results. The more cycles you’ve done it, the better you are at it, inherently,” said the senior party committee official. Analytics firms like Civis, BlueLabs and Clarity Campaign Labs on the left take voter file information and combine it with fieldwork – making phone calls, knocking on doors and conducting polls – to build models of the electorate that can inform a campaign’s internal polling and help it make decisions on message, advertising, candidate campaign travel and many other factors.

And while the GOP has a growing group of talented digital firms it can turn to, they are less established than the cadre of groups on the left. For example, there is no company on the right like ActBlue, the go-to option among Democrats for one-click donations using stored credit card data. ActBlue has helped raise more than $600 million for Democrats over the past decade.

Adding to this problem of a half-developed ecosystem, there is still a lack of fresh conservative tech talent coming to Republican campaigns from Silicon Valley or anywhere else, said Anton Vuljaj, head of advertising and business development for the Republican firm IMGE.

“The Dems have a really strong bench in this space. They have people who want to learn this, to understand digital persuasion and fundraising. I think we’re all still tapping from the same group. It’s really hard to find talent,” Vuljaj said.

So there is a lot of work ahead for the GOP. And many Republicans worry that if they win control of the Senate, it will blind the party to all that remains to be done to get ready for 2016, even as groups like Ready for Hillary gear up to give former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a robust, up-to-date email list of three million supporters.

“Everyone’s going to pat themselves on the back, and there’s a risk of overlooking some of the problems we still have to fix,” said the senior party committee official.

“I do believe it’s been the most productive two years the party’s had, in a lot of ways,” the official said. “I also believe in a lot of important ways, we’re still behind our competitors.”

The source also added: “The party infrastructure is not good enough yet to beat Hillary specifically.”