Rubio: GOP needs to ‘invest’ in technology

Originally published December 5, 2012

Sen. Marco Rubio said Wednesday that Republican political campaigns must regain the technological “high ground” to win the White House and the support of the electorate in the future.

“Whoever has the high ground on technology is going to win, in both warfare and in politics. That’s just a fact, and so we can never allow that to happen again,” the Florida Republican said at POLITICO’s Playbook Breakfast in response to a question about what Republicans could learn from President Barack Obama’s campaign.

He emphasized using technology to turn out supporters, adding: “A supporter that is not a voter is not much use on Election Day.”

His remarks come after an election cycle in which the Obama’s campaign’s “grand technology experiment worked,” proving crucial not least of all on Election Day, when Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s turnout tool, ORCA, a supposed “answer to Obama’s perceived tech advantage,”floundered.

Rubio partly attributed the lag in 2012 to money problems.

“Chairman Priebus inherited a party that had some financial problems and spent the better part of two years just getting the party out of a financial hole, which didn’t create a lot of time or space to invest in infrastructure and technology,” Rubio said.

Such investment might include recruiting more talented engineers to Republican campaigns and firms. In a recent post reviewing the San Francisco Bay Area’s overwhelmingly Democratic voting and political-contribution habits, The New York Times’s Nate Silver concluded it could be difficult for the GOP because “Democrats are drawing from a much larger group of potential staff and volunteers in Silicon Valley.”

The severity of that recruiting disadvantage is up for debate.

“There’s certainly no doubt that the Democrats aren’t fearful of looking outside of politics for the best in tech, for the best in data crunching,” said Vincent Harris, who runs a Republican digital media firm. Republicans may do well to mimic that outreach.

“I hire first based on someone’s skills and second based on their party ideology, and the Republican Party needs to in some ways do that,” Harris said. “Why does the person who builds your website have to be conservative?”

He suggests that grassroots conservative groups start aggressively recruiting young tech enthusiasts through scholarships and college mentoring.

“This industry is run still by a TV-dominated old guard that has no incentives to do that,” Harris said.

At Stanford University, which churns out hundreds of young engineers each year, computer science professor Eric Roberts said that he suspects the talent gap is real but that he doesn’t have concrete evidence.

“I do know a few Stanford computer science students who have gone on to work for Democratic candidates,” said Roberts, who has held his post since 1990, in an email. “I can’t think of any Republicans in that category.”

Christopher Mays, the president of Silicon Valley Young Republicans, rejects the idea of a talent gap.

“It’s not the result of there being better talent on one side or the other,” Mays said. “I think it’s more an institutional issue. We saw in 2008, when President Obama was running the first time, his ability to master this emerging technology like social media far outpaces what the Republicans were able to do. I think that’s a testament to their organizational ability.”

Mays pointed out that Silicon Valley Republican supporters, while a rare breed, do exist. Many of them are wealthy and have resources to marshal, such as HP CEO and former gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, a Romney backer, and libertarian-leaning PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, who supported former presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).

“The reality is the Republicans in Congress and Mitt Romney himself, as well as other presidential candidates, came out to the San Francisco Bay Area many, many times and walked away several million dollars richer,” Mays said.

Another Republican digital strategist also rejected the talent-gap notion but hinted at the same resource issues Rubio later did.

“I do object to the narrative that the campaigns were held back because they couldn’t find good people,” the strategist said. “They just didn’t have the time or money to do things on the scale” of the Obama campaign.

But scaling up might not be as daunting as it looks, the strategist said.

“You walk down University Avenue and you see these startups that are literally changing the world, like Pinterest, and they have, like, three people that work there, so you don’t ultimately need 5,000 engineers to do this. You just need a dedicated core group.”

For his part, Rubio called for his party to prioritize technology in 2016 but stopped short of specifics.

“The technology of 2012 was amazing. The technology of 2016 is indescribable, and it can be done, but it’s got to be invested in. It’s got to be a priority,” Rubio said.