Republican Data-Mining Modeled on Obama’s Seeks ParityPhil Mattingly
In a Washington office with walls covered by dry-erase boards, one phrase in red, block letters stands out above the multicolored scribbled notes, ideas and equations: “Does this drive data & dollars?”
That’s the question each of the 40-plus employees working inside the Republican National Committee’s Capitol Hill data and digital operation are supposed to ask themselves every day they come to work.
It’s a query born from failures exposed by President Barack Obama’s 2012 data-driven re-election campaign.
Para Bellum Labs was created to answer that question outlined in detail in the RNC’s 100-page “Growth and Opportunity Project” released in March 2013, a post-presidential campaign report intended to provide a more successful path in future contests.
Designed as a Silicon Valley-esque incubator, the RNC offices in Washington and San Mateo, California, are home to what Republican officials intend to become a data hub for years to come.
Led by Chuck DeFeo, the head of former President George W. Bush’s 2004 digital campaign arm, and operating with about $17 million, the team has designs of matching, and then advancing, the Obama team’s success in data mining and donor targeting.
“This is a strategic moment,” DeFeo said in an interview, noting that Democrats are operating in the midterm congressional election without the Obama campaign machine leading the way. “When you no longer have the imperative of getting an incumbent president re-elected, you have a little bit of a brain drain and less sense of urgency.”
Such tools as “RNC Dynamo,” “RNC Foresight” and “RNC Beacon” are being built, enhanced and rebuilt as the party attempts to do something with little precedent: Combining the data and digital operations of a campaign organization inside the party apparatus with no expiration date.
“It’s not only winning in 2014, but the infrastructure we need to win in 2016,” DeFeo said.
Democrats involved with Obama’s campaign point to the potential constraints of operating inside a party committee, where the agility needed to change directions could be restricted by party officials -- something the independent technology team in the president’s Chicago-based campaign headquarters didn’t have to contend with.
Other Obama veterans point out that some of the technology Republicans are using was created by the Democrats.
For Azarias Reda, the benefit of arriving on the ground floor of the RNC’s initiative outweighed potential drawbacks when he decided in January to leave his Austin, Texas-based startup, Meritful, to become chief data officer.
The pitch that sold Reda, who has a doctorate in computer science engineering, is the same one he makes to engineering students he recruits on the campuses Georgia Tech University in Atlanta, Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, and the University of California, Berkeley.
“You can go build a cool app or a cool website,” Reda tells the students. “Or you can help elect the next president of the United States.”
With engineering recruits from those schools, as well as new hires from companies such as Facebook Inc., Oracle Corp. and Microsoft Corp., Reda and DeFeo say the talent gap between the parties has narrowed. They point to Representative David Jolly’s March special-election victory in Florida, although the RNC isn’t the only group taking credit for the win.
Regardless of Para Bellum’s role in the election, there was clear benefit in the opportunity to put their tools to the test, Reda said. DeFeo called the race “a very, very successful field test for us.”
The system of voter-management and predictive behavior analytics includes data gathered from social media, polling, the party’s website and fundraising e-mails. That information is then crossed with details on consumer purchases and activities gleaned from outside vendors.
Collecting the data hasn’t necessarily been a challenge for the party, which gathers information on its own and holds a series of data-sharing agreements with state parties and a third party vendor, Data Trust.
What the Obama campaign mastered was the ability to seamlessly transfer its data collection into the models, programs and apps that provided as close to a 360-degree view of voters and donors as possible.
For the RNC, the idea is to match that and expand on it, creating an infrastructure through a platform that opens the door for any Republican candidate, aligned group or party committee to use.
“What we’re doing now is building out the infrastructure to give access to candidates across the board come the fall,” Reda said.
Matching and bettering the tech savvy of their partisan competitors will be difficult -- Democrats and aligned groups aren’t slowing down, even without the Obama machine.
The Democratic National Committee established its internal data and digital arm in February, called Project Ivy, which officials say houses the underlying code-base, voter data and supporter models that powered the presidential campaign.
“We’re building on a foundation of experimentation, analysis, and thought leadership that stretches back a decade to develop tools and technology to empower state parties, campaigns, organizers, and voters,” DNC Digital Director Matt Compton and DNC Technology Director Andrew Brown said in a February blog post.
For DeFeo and his team, it’s that question on the wall that will ultimately decide who is better come November.
The organization that collects more data on voters and more dollars from donors will have the upper hand. And in this fight, there’s always a clear winner and loser.
“We are going to find out how successful we really are on Election Day,” DeFeo said.