How to Build a Digital Elephant: The GOP’s Biggest Obstacle in 2016

The Wilderness | Issue 61 | 10 . 21 . 2015 |


Last week saw the Democrats, the purported party of Youth and Diversity, turn their first primary debate into a joyless slog that quickly devolved into a pitiless deathmarch to see which aging, pasty-faced candidate could stay awake past their bedtime the longest. It took less than five minutes for the Democratic candidates to start yelling at, and about, everyone watching. As VOXDOTCOM noted, the Democratic party is in ashes on a state and national level outside of the presidency, and they have no candidates in the post-Obama era worth offering so hey: Lincoln Chafee will have to do! The best they are offering is a 74-year-old socialist (who, a week after the debate ended, is probably still on stage screaming about communitarian economics in a darkened auditorium) and a 70-year-old oligarch with the lowest likability ratings of any presidential candidate in modern history…who also just happens to be the target of a FBI investigation for gross mishandling of classified information.

And yet, in the end none of it may matter.

The gaffes. The staged media events. The bursts of random cackling that repel voters like garlic repels vampires. The scandalous indifference to, and insolence toward, federal law. All of it may very well be utterly inconsequential in the final analysis because more and more these days it’s data and analytics that decide elections. And numbers don’t care about likability or traditional electability. The 2016 election, more than 2012 or 2008 before it, will be an election decided on data and outreach, and as of right now the GOP and its candidates are woefully underequipped and underprepared. Some of this is completely beyond their control at this early point in the primaries. But some of it is not; it is very much under their control, and the current structure of GOP campaign operations suggest that the candidates are simply choosing not to emphasize it.

Here is a simple fact: right now, the GOP is on the road to defeat, set to be overwhelmed by a superior digital voter microtargeting operation on the other side, and hamstrung by a refusal to focus on the future of predictive analytics and Big Data application technology. These are the things which translate through e-mail and online contacts, into both donations and (even more importantly) boots on the ground in the thick of a general election campaign: door-to-door mobilization. Everything else — the theater, the social media back-and-forths, the SNL appearances and Sunday morning show interviews — is almost meaningless. The 2016 pool of potential GOP nominees represents the deepest reserve of young Presidential-level talent the Republican Party has had in ages, and none of it may matter because while the engineers and developers on the Democratic side aren’t necessarily personally invested in Hillary or Bernie, they do believe in the greater Cause. And, more to the point, these are the sorts of people who simply enjoy solving equations and problems.

GOP candidates are facing a mammoth two-pronged problem: 1) the failure of will and lack of funds to field large data-driven get-out-the-vote operations, and; 2) Hillary Clinton’s well funded allies in Silicon Valley, specifically Eric Schmidt and Google. On top of that, this is a party whose candidates look like they are playing catch-up in the areas of digital operations and field mobilization.

To give you an idea of how far behind the Republican Party is in the digital age of voter-targeting, realize this: the GOP didn’t even create a position for a Chief Technology Officer until after the 2012 election, when they looked to former Facebook senior engineer Andrew Barkett, who moved on to work on digital ops for the Jeb! Bush campaign. It took a disaster as large as Mitt Romney’s ORCA operation, an analytical Titanic, to wake the Republicans from of a pre-digital opioid slumber that saw their rival campaign operation carry Obama to consecutive victories on the backs of 20/30-something developers who were busily coding, farming data, and analyzing and applying the results behind the scenes. (Team Chicago had about 200 digital staffers to Romney’s 50.) The GOP undertook a sort of digital boot camp after the failures of 2008 and 2012 that certainly helped in 2014. But how well that translates over to 2016 is still a shaky unknown — midterm cycles are not at all like the massive pressure of Presidential election cycles — and as far as individual campaigns are concerned, the outlook isn’t good.

“There’s a whole bunch of people in politics who say a lot of words, all the buzzwords that we talked about, and they say, ‘I want more analytics.’ None of them have any idea what any of those things mean,” Barkett stated on a panel discussion earlier this year. “They have no idea what the difference is between building an infrastructure of servers that know how to send e-mails to having an e-mail list or the difference between the records in the voter file and the analytics that you do in addition to those,”

This isn’t to say that as a party, the GOP hasn’t made enormous strides in online voter targeting. They have. But how well that translates over to candidates preparing for a brutal primary and general election is anyone’s guess. On top of that,  the GOP simply just doesn’t have the allies in the technology industry that the Clinton machine, via the Obama campaign, has.

This is why forward-thinking campaigns that embrace technology, such as Marco Rubio’s, are so important to the new era of digital politics. Every campaign should be scouring the earth for the new Peter Brand from Moneyball. High and low, in and out of politics, everywhere and anywhere. But because the Republican party itself is still littered with pre-Obama, pre-analytics consultant fossils who think direct-mail expenditures and TV ads are worth burning millions of dollars on, new talent is hard to find and even harder to convince to take a likely pay-cut. (Nobody with talent is going to take a pay-cut to be told “no, we’re overlooking your Big Data web microtargeting outreach idea to send out a bunch of postcard-mailers instead. It’s what we’ve always done.”) And for everything the Rubio campaign is doing right in embracing Silicon Valley’s talent and technology, he also embraced Romney’s former ORCA leadership team (who have shown no signs of learning from their cetacean-sized failure in November 2012), and he is still struggling to gain ground and cash in a crowded primary field dominated by a regressive AM radio entertainment wing still gladly turning their microphones over to a mealymouthed shiteating harlequin named Donald Trump — who at this point, has zero digital ground-operation beyond telling his Twitter followers to spam-vote the Drudge online poll.

Trump may have his billions, but he has thus far shown zero interest in spending it on the sort of campaign infrastructure that matters for winning national elections, especially as regards digital outreach and targeting small donors and voters.

Last week, as candidates released their FEC filing data for the 3rd quarter of 2015, burn rates for GOP frontrunners were alarmingly high as it related to money spent on their GOTV and digital targeting operations. Ben Carson, for example, spent upwards of $10 million on advertising mainly through traditional ad buys and old-school mailers. Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, spent a mere $450,000 on online ad buys and parlayed it into a stunning $11 million of donations. As Jeb! Bush continues to slide in polls, he has ended up slashing campaign salaries while still paying out a moderate amount on big data operations.

Meanwhile, the highest paid staffer of the Hillary Clinton campaign is her director of analytics.

One side is taking this all very seriously. One side, by all appearances, continues not to.

GOP campaigns are burning through millions of donor dollars on the same old traditional media in primaries, and the story that many of them will tell you is that they are hoping to use more tech-savvy targeted analytics later on in the general election once they get there. But as we have seen before from the Romney disaster, by then it will perhaps be too late. Patrick Ruffini of Echelon Insights (and whose Medium is an invaluable tool for understanding these topics more) had an excellent breakdown at Politico on the problems of an analytically conservative party continuously attempting to play catch-up. Ruffini writes:

This divide is mirrored on the digital side of the campaign. Rather than hoarding money early, Democrats have invested in seven-figure email list-building programs to lay the foundation for eight- and nine-figure digital fundraising returns down the road. Clinton and Sanders are very different candidates, but the strategies they have pursued in this regard are strikingly similar. In the second quarter, each had paid online advertising firms $1.2 million, exclusive of money paid for staff or to maintain their digital infrastructure. These ads are designed to do one thing: get as many people as possible to give over their email address to the campaign, so they can later be targeted for fundraising appeals.

The Sanders campaign, for example, is using targeted emails lists to reach individual voters and volunteers, and building out an organic movement. GOP candidates are relying on the big ad buys, the sort of impersonal arms-length outreach which may reach eyeballs of voters sitting in front of their TV, but doesn’t motivate people to donate or volunteer to knock on doors.

In short, just as the GOP itself is relying on an outdated and hostile media for its debate-hosting and moderation (instead of turning to online formats to reach non-traditional voters) GOP campaigns are pouring millions upon millions of wasted dollars into outdated, traditional advertising buys such as regional TV ads and posterboard mailers. The other challenge facing GOP candidates is simple: competition. More candidates means more (and more scattered) donors, and a primary race that devolves into a parody of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, with a dozen or so goofballs stumbling over each other for dollars and stretching their field operations to over-max capacity (hello, Scott Walker). There is only so much money to go around for so many candidates.



Which brings us to the most terrifying aspect of all of this: Eric Schmidt’s The Groundwork.

Little is known about the Google Alphabet CEO’s start-up operation, except that it is partly funded by Schmidt himself and includes several key members of the successful Obama “Cave,” the engineers who developed superior voter-targeting application platforms in 2012.  The Groundwork’s website is a single landing page with a mysterious logo that, I kid you not, resembles the Illuminati symbol. It was created before Clinton’s official launch, with one singular goal in mind: elect Hillary. ran a profile and the information shared should be a wake up call to GOP base and the candidates bickering over how to Make America Great Again:

…sources say the Groundwork was created to minimize the technological gap that occurs between presidential campaign cycles while pushing forward the Big Data infrastructure that lies at the heart of modern presidential politics. There is also another gap in play: The shrinking distance between Google and the Democratic Party. Former Google executive Stephanie Hannon is the Clinton campaign’s chief technology officer, and a host of ex-Googlers are currently employed as high-ranking technical staff at the Obama White House. Schmidt, for his part, is one of the most powerful donors in the Democratic Party—and his influence does not stem only from his wealth, estimated by Forbes at more than $10 billion. At a time when private-sector money is flowing largely unchecked into US politics, Schmidt’s funding of the Groundwork suggests that 2016’s most valuable resource may not be donors capable of making eight-figure donations to Super PACs, but rather supporters who know how to convince talented engineers to forsake (at least for awhile) the riches of Silicon Valley for the rough-and-tumble pressure cooker of a presidential campaign.”

On top of this, the DNC has been granted access to Organizing For Action’s coveted donor list, including all e-mail addresses. This is what is transpiring in the back rooms of the DNC and the Clinton campaign machine, while conservative candidates relitigate the Holocaust as a gun-control issue, argue about George W. Bush’s responsibility for 9/11, and generally dance the age-old jig of internecine primary warfare to nitrous oxide giggles of a network media all too happy to ensure that the clown car rolls on. While GOP campaigns struggle for oxygen, money and voters, Schmidt has already laid down a 50-state digital infrastructure and is using the best young minds he can find to target and develop it.

Make no mistake: the Republican Party is once again playing with two strikes against it.

The engineers and developers creating these platforms for Schmidt may be ideologically like-minded, but they aren’t necessarily driven by their desire to influence the national conversation as it relates to social issues or foreign policy. They simply see a problem that needs solving, and they know that if they’re the ones to solve it they can write their own post-election ticket anywhere they want. Let’s be clear: when Eric Schmidt of all people approaches you with an opportunity, you absolutely are not going to start mumbling to him about “political differences.” As far as Silicon Valley culture is concerned, you’ve just been given an Offer You Can’t Refuse. Could anybody? These young minds don’t care about e-mail scandals or leaked classified intelligence. They don’t care about debate performances or poll numbers. They don’t care what MSNBC or CNN hosts are saying. They are simply data-driven, analytical minds obsessed with solving the problem put in front of them. Unfortunately for Republicans, the problem presented to them in this case is how to elect Hillary Clinton (or maybe Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden, depending on how things shake out) as President of the United States of America.

If this outlook seems grim,  it is.

But it’s not entirely hopeless. On top of the digital strides the RNC has made with apps and e-mail targeting, a familiar ally is attempting to take the party and the candidates even further in hopes of competing with Schmidt and Google: Charles and David Koch. Koch industries poured money into a data research firm called i360, which was started by Michael Palmer, John McCain’s former chief technical strategist. Past clients included Tom Cotton, Joni Ernst and Larry Hogan. (The latter two won decisive 2014 victories in races where the Democrats had started off favored; in Hogan’s case, pretty much nobody outside his friends and family thought he would win the Maryland governor’s race until he shockingly clobbered Martin O’Malley’s handpicked successor on election night.) In Colorado, i360 assisted in targeting voters using social media analytics, credit bureau reporting data, former addresses and television watching habits. That data, once compiled, analyzed, and intelligently used, helped Cory Gardner defeat Senator Mark Uterus in what turned out to be a very close race.

Data-mining made all the difference.

The problem with applying successful GOTV analytics is the GOP’s tendency to sit on them instead of working to develop them further. Where RNC data platforms were in 2014 for midterm elections, OFA and the DNC were already in 2012 for a national election. And you can bet they’ve moved forward since then. The RNC itself has a new digital team and a new platform, Republic VX, and is hoping to grow and expand on i360’s success, but as the RNC’s new Chief Technology Officer Azarias Reda told Bloomberg earlier this year, “we can’t solve every problem campaigns have.” There is a recent record of success on the Right but it has to translate over to national campaigns and campaigns have to put emphasis, and more importantly money into these operations. This all has to happen while Hillary Clinton enjoys a comfortable primary lead and the company of tech-billionaires and developers that are culturally predisposed not to view young tech-savvy GOP candidates as options.

The “candidate” may still be the mighty seed from which all other branches grow, but Barack Obama’s election (and, more importantly, re-election) showed that the candidate and their message do not matter as much as the infrastructure surrounding them. Outdated tactics from past presidential elections will not work. The GOP candidate could be targeting voters, engaging with biased debate moderators, or dressing up in giant squirrel costumes — none of it will matter. As long as they are playing catch-up, they’ll be losing. The results will be the same.

And the GOP will be left with the grim task of having to dispose of the carcass of another giant fail whale.



– SM –




(Marco Rubio at Google. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

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  1. BeevaloBill Reply

    Precisely. Analytics animate data. Data and analytics animate outcomes. 

  2. MarlaHughes Reply

    Well thought out and coincidentally goes with my marketing training: Address the fear. Whatever your target is, if you solve their perceived fear issue, you win not just their vote but their loyalty. 
    Digital communications that can be targeted with accuracy means that those fears can be responded to in a personal, one on one way that has been impossible up until now. Instead of giving volunteers
    talking points and sending them out into the digital jungle to Tweet, RT and post the same message over and over again, demonstrating how each one could personalize it and become a brand ambassador 
    to their friends and families, addressing their fears individually and personally is a requirement in today’s marketing and campaigning. 

  3. Allen Fuller Reply

    This is a good reminder of how far we have to go. I would argue though that the real separation between Democrats and Republicans isn’t just that Democrats have better (rather, more) engineers, but that the Democrats support a whole ecosystem focused on building better relationships with voters. The data and analytics are means to an end — knowing voters better, communicating with them on issues and through channels they relate to, and ultimately swaying their vote.

    Having data and being able to leverage analytics alone are tools to help in a tight election. But that’s just part of the solution. Having a message that connects with values and a tone that communicates empathy. The right message to the right person at the right time (via the right channel). I would argue that authenticity and likability do, in fact, matter very much.

    Too often we don’t value the expertise to effective execute — both on technology and on message. Getting it right on both fronts is a elephant of a problem, but one we have to shoot for.

  4. Ron Robinson Reply

    True.   So true.    But there is real hope: look to the bench and the second string.

    For two years and three days now I’ve been working digital for the team that decided to try to draft Dr. Carson.  

    Two years and three days ago, few of us would have predicted that our efforts to draft Carson would stand where it does today. 

    We started with a limited direct mail list and moved the people ‘who would go willingly’ over to participation in our digital operation.  Rather than put the cart before the horse and try to  develop the campaign solely from the digital/analytical side (with a paucity of data) we made a serious and earnest decision to start with some of the basics… like answering *every* email that comes in (something which most presidential campaigns and state and national parties make no effort to do).

    We grew our online base organically by treating them with respect, giving them important work to do (yes, that is scary) and yes, even giving many some basic online and social media training.

    It’s hard to argue with results: $21 million raised and 35,000 volunteers in the field.  And we’re not even the main campaign. 

    While the GOP still regards digital as a cash cow for cronies, there are a lot of consultants out there advancing $2,000 month solutions that will work better than the $10,000/month solutions advanced by the ‘Targeted Victory’ and ‘FLS Connect’  crony operations.

    Put them in, Coach!

  5. Sam Haysom Reply

    This article is right from the technical perspective, but what it is missing is a broader understanding of why it doesn’t make sense for the Republicans to try and close this gap. First of all the GOP base is in general far more conscientious and older than the Democrat base so the kind of repetively nudging and micro-targeting that is recommended here is going to be far less fruitful for Republicans. Secondly even if that weren’t there case how is a political party that enjoys the support of at best 20 percent of Silicon Valley going to compete for talent and more importantly ensure that potential workers aren’t infiltrators and won’t leak. Micro-targeting when it was about marketing researching and aggregating marketing survey data as opposed to online big data and social media was dominated by Republicans because Karl Rove and his team were familiar with the industry and able to recruit operatives from an industry that was pretty conservative. Your desire to chalk this up to some kind of baffled Luddite aversion to or slowness with adopting technology misses the sociological reasons that are far more pertinent to explaining the gap. Saying Republicans should close the Big Data gap is like saying Republicans should close the Hollywood celebrity gap. Silicon Valley like Hollywood is a democratic enclave makes far more sense to bypass it than to trot out Ron Silver and Larry the Cable Guy. 

    • Stephen Miller Reply

      Yes the GOP should continue to write off GOTV analytics just like they did Hollywood in 2008 & 2012.

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