(06/10/2015)– Eyeing 2016, G.O.P Embraces Digital Strategies, but Doubts Persist
By Ashley Parker, The New York Times
WASHINGTON — The criticism after the 2012 presidential election was swift and harsh: Democrats were light years ahead of Republicans when it came to digital strategy and tactics, and Republicans had serious work to do on the technology front if they ever hoped to win back the White House.
Now, with the 2016 campaign already underway, Republicans are eager to show they have learned the lessons of past cycles and are placing a premium on hiring top digital talent to build the tools they deem necessary to compete.
But their immediate problem is slightly more low-tech: the basics of supply and demand.
“Shopping around for a digital data firm was already difficult — and when you’re one of 20 possible candidates in a party that has yet to establish its own expertise in this area, it’s even harder,” said Sasha Issenberg, the author of “The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns.”
“The Republicans have a particular challenge,” he added, “which is, in these areas they don’t have many people with either the hard skills or the experience to go out and take on this type of work.”
A white board at the Targeted Victory office shows names of Republican candidates from the 2014 midterm elections. Credit Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times
This type of work — often described in political circles as digital, data and analytics — encompasses many areas, from building email systems for small-dollar fund-raising to generating buzz on social media to analyzing data to help direct ads at specific groups of voters.
Using data to determine the most efficient and effective way to target voters, considered by many to be a crucial advantage for President Obama’s campaign in 2012, could prove particularly important in a crowded Republican primary in which every dollar counts. But it is another area in which only a handful of Republican companies specialize.
The lack of experience among Republican operatives and companies is captured in a coming study by Daniel Kreiss, an assistant professor of political communications at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Christopher Jasinski, a graduate student there.
Using the Federal Election Commission and other data sources, including LinkedIn, the two identified 626 political operatives with experience in digital, data and analytics on every presidential campaign since 2004.
The breakdown was stark: 503 of those staff members were hired by Democratic campaigns, 123 by Republicans.
They also found that 75 political companies or organizations were founded by those former campaign workers on the Democratic side, but only 19 on the Republican side.
“Historically, the one thing that’s pretty clear is that the Democrats, over the course of three cycles, have been investing much more in creating a deeper pool of talent that can do things like work in digital, data and analytics, and that runs from top to bottom in the party,” Mr. Kreiss said.
The study also found that Democrats have done a better job of actively recruiting and attracting employees from places like Silicon Valley who bring innovative thinking and new technologies from the commercial sector into the political arena.
Though the imbalance seems to stem largely from recruitment efforts, Mr. Issenberg added that Republicans suffered from a cultural disadvantage as well.
Many who work in technology have a somewhat libertarian worldview that, especially on social issues, more closely aligns with Democrats.
Who Is Running for President?
The limited number of Republican companies and the pressure to attract premium talent has added a new dimension to the so-called invisible primary, where candidates vie for expertise and money, and has created unexpected opportunities for operatives with digital experience.
For instance, Targeted Victory — one of the largest companies on the Republican side, which ran Mitt Romney’s 2012 digital operation — has signed on with former Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, but also plans to split itself off into distinct parts to take on one or two other campaigns or outside groups.
“This is the first time there have been more campaigns that view digital as an actual weapon, as opposed to a box they have to check,” said Michael Beach, a founder of Targeted Victory.
Vincent Harris and his company, Harris Media, which handled Ted Cruz’s 2012 Senate bid in Texas, is running the digital operation for the 2016 presidential campaign of Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.
And Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has hired Optimus, one of the few Republican analytics companies, and Push Digital to lead his digital effort.
Other likely campaigns, including those for Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, are solving the problem by building in-house teams.
Mr. Walker, for example, hired staff members who worked on Senator Joni Ernst’s successful 2014 campaign in Iowa and from the Silicon Valley office of the Republican National Committee.
Republicans say they are optimistic this cycle will help usher in a true cultural change, much as the 2008 Obama campaign did — with its emphasis on data and analytics that helped create a pipeline to recruit and nurture tech talent.
But the party faces a difficult path to building the vast operation that a general election requires, said Patrick Ruffini, founder of Engage, a Republican digital strategy company.
“There is going to be a real challenge in terms of finding people who were at the level the Obama campaign people were four years ago,” he said.
Still, Republicans say they see progress. Anton Vuljaj, chief revenue officer for IMGE, a digital advocacy agency whose political clients are Republicans, said that after the 2012 cycle, companies like his have more leverage because campaigns now see the value in the work they do.
“We’ve had a lot more conversations with campaign managers and general consultants who know at least the very basics of what questions to ask us, like how are you segmenting and amplifying your email lists or how are you measuring the impact of your advertising,” he said.
Brian Stobie, a partner at Optimus, also said there were signs of change — even in the sheer number of campaigns willing to take a meeting.
“Now everyone wants to have the meeting,” he said. “They may not sign on the dotted line, but they want to have the meeting. Before 2012, it was like: ‘Analytics? We don’t need that.’ ”
The digital firms are also becoming increasingly choosy about just which candidate they work for — a perk of their elevated stature in the party hierarchy.
“Who we sign on with is very much tied to how much they buy into our worldview,” said Zac Moffatt, a founder of Targeted Victory. “I don’t know that you would want to spend a year just running into a wall, so I think everyone we sign up with cares about the cost of efficiency and wants to have a plan for how we turn out 40,000-plus folks in Iowa.”
But some Republican operatives with digital experience privately wonder how much the emphasis on digital and analytics is simply for public image purposes.
Will the digital team, they worry, still be the first item cut when the budget gets crunched?
“There’s a difference between having a seat at the table, because there are seats at the table, and then there’s the back room where all the decisions get made, and there’s who does the candidate call at 11 p.m. at night,” Mr. Ruffini said.
How much the Republican digital field evolves may not truly be known until after Election Day.
“If one of the campaigns that actually uses data to make decisions wins, then the culture changes,” Mr. Stobie said. “If one of the campaigns that uses data as a hood ornament wins, then nothing changes.”
Full Article via The New York Times.