GOP tech gap needs millions

Originally published December 13, 2012

Republicans need to make a multimillion-dollar investment to close a digital gap with Democrats and President Obama, according to GOP tech experts.

The party faces a growing urgency to catch up with Democrats; frustrated GOP operatives believe the party is lagging in an area widely agreed to have given Obama the edge in the last two presidential election cycles.

“Everyone in the party is frustrated. I haven’t talked to one person who thinks that the Republicans were more successful online in 2012 [than in 2008 or 2010],” said Vincent Harris, a GOP strategist who ran digital campaigns for Rick Perry’s and Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaigns.

“There is no doubt in my mind that this is the moment that this must be fixed. The good news, though, is that everyone seems to be open to solutions,” he said

The president’s digital advantage over Romney in 2012 helped his campaign identify likely Obama voters in key swing states and districts months before Election Day. The campaign then used that database to keep in touch with those voters to persuade them to stick with the candidate and show up at the ballot box.

Obama already had a state-of-the-art digital team from the 2008 campaign, which gave him a built-in advantage over Republicans. His campaign built up from that strong base, designing its own digital infrastructure.

On Election Day, Obama’s campaign was confident in victory, believing it knew exactly who was going to show up. Romney’s campaign, and many other Republicans, were surprised by the electorate, which included a higher proportion of minority voters than they had expected.

Harris said the Republican National Committee needs to invest tens of millions over the next two years to hire a talented and forward-thinking digital team that can help Republican candidates harness cutting-edge technologies. The team would develop a proprietary voter database for the RNC to target likely supporters in swing states.

“Only the RNC is uniquely positioned to fix this problem,” Harris said. “This has to be the time that the party comes together and starts talking to each other.”

The RNC has the money for a big investment. Chairman Reince Priebus announced this month that the committee is “completely debt-free.”

So far the party hasn’t made any firm commitments, though an RNC official acknowledged the group is looking at “the direction our party goes with its digital presence and how we get there.”

Some Republicans think the party will be better off if candidates and conservative groups look to build up on their own.

“There’s a real risk that we’re going to put too many eggs in the RNC basket,” said GOP digital strategist Patrick Ruffini, the president of D.C.-based digital agency Engage. “We have to break out of this mold that we have to go ask permission from the higher-ups. … There needs to be a paradigm shift, because I don’t think we can wait for the party.”

He said outside digital groups have been meeting to discuss how to move forward.

Liz Mair, online communications director at the RNC during the 2008 election, agreed the quickest results might come from outside the party institutions. It is often difficult for the RNC to plan long-term “because things tend to operate on this two-year cycle,” she explained.

Mair said she thinks pessimism over the “digital gap” between the parties is “far worse” following this cycle than in 2008.

“It may not be a bad thing in the end,” she added, since more people might finally be convinced early investment is necessary. “I actually think the prospective candidate pool is paying attention [now].”

While Romney’s digital team fell short of Obama’s operation, the Republican candidate has left his party with some resources.

Romney digital director Zac Moffatt said too many people are in a rush to declare that “digital didn’t move forward” for Republicans in 2012.

He said the party has assets from Romney that could be used going forward. Romney’s presidential campaign gave the RNC a database last week containing 1 million names that “represents a 1,000 percent increase in the donor base that the RNC digital effort produced for all of the 2010 cycle,” Moffatt said.

In the coming weeks, the campaign will also hand over 300 pages of analytics and memos on vendors, infrastructure management and mobile app development.

Still, according to Ruffini, “There’s a real danger of being obsessed with running a 2012 campaign in 2016.”

That’s why Harris says the RNC needs to hire a digital director to implement a long-term digital plan. It needs to hire people who can harness new technologies that will make it even easier to identify and communicate with likely voters.

Ultimately, Republicans say, top donors and party leaders need to buy into the idea of building a top-notch digital strategy.

Mair predicted the catalyst will be a future Republican candidate who understands the need to invest early and can pitch him- or herself to outside groups and tech leaders.

If the GOP doesn’t shift its approach, Harris said, he fears the party could end up sharing the same frustrations after 2014 and 2016.

Moffatt says he cannot predict if his party will make progress.

“Ask me in three months,” he said. “I’m confident that right now everyone is using the right words. [And] I think they are asking the right questions.”