Why Democrats Are Laughing at the Republican Digital Strategy — And Why They Shouldn’t Be

By Beth Reinhard | Monday, July 29, 2013 | 6:07 a.m.Photo: AP Photo/Mark Duncan

Phil Musser has spent most of his career in the stodgy Beltway political establishment, from the Bush administration to the Republican Governors Association to advisory posts with the Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney presidential campaigns.

Now he’s hanging out with a passel of 20-something data nerds in an all-white-and-glass loft in Old Town Alexandria that looks like a Google lounge. “I’m the gray-haired one,” joked Musser, who is 41. “I gave up on Washington and moved in with the kids.”

Musser and partner Alex Skatell — he’s 26 — recently launched a budding digital empire, Media Group of America LLC, which includes a digital consulting firma center-right news site viewed by more than 3.5 million people this month, and a technology tool they claim will “leapfrog” President Obama’s cutting-edge campaign. (Asked if he’s worried, Obama’s top digital strategist quipped, “In a word, no.”)

Let the trash-talking commence. Musser and Skatell are among a handful of Republican operatives clamoring to bridge the digital divide revealed by the 2012 election, in which Obama’s campaign deployed a sophisticated data-mining operation to reshape the electorate into a winning coalition of young people, women and minorities.

“The Obama team is several years ahead of everyone else in its technological advantage, which the campaign effectively combined with an incredible organizational effort,” concluded a sweeping review of the 2012 campaign in March by the Republican National Committee. “This gave the Obama campaign more information on voters than any other political campaign in history.”

MGA’s signature online tool is called COR, for Central Organizing Responder, and like Obama’s Narwhal, it can merge different campaign spreadsheets on one data platform. That means canvassing lists, phone banks, fundraising reports, event sign-in sheets and social networks are all integrated with outside data for highly detailed profiles of voters and supporters.

One key difference between COR and Obama’s digital strategy: it’s for sale. Possibly as soon as next month, Musser and Skatell envision a Netflix-like sharing arrangement in which campaigns pay a monthly fee for software that even an old-school political consultant can navigate.

“The Obama campaign built a death star for one campaign,” said Skatell, an online fundraising and social media guru who worked at the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Republican Governors Association. “COR is a system built to work with multiple campaigns with different systems and budget limitations providing real-time data insights.”

The technology can help a campaign send e-mails that are tailored to a voter’s interests and past responses; rank supporters based on their fundraising ability and online influence; and track responses to e-mails and online attack ads. MGA’s investors and advisory board members include former Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno, former Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos, Republican strategist Sara Fagen, Republican donor John Jordan and ex-Google executive Brandon Paine.

“It’s one of the smartest approaches I’ve seen in tying it all together,” said Paine, an advertising technology expert who now works at AppNexus. “Things seem to happen in the political world that are unacceptable in business world, like carpet-bombing on television and direct mail and mass e-mails that aren’t targeted at all. Overall, I think both parties have a lot of room to catch up to the business world.”

Obama’s former digital strategist, Joe Rospars, was skeptical that Musser and Skatell have improved on the Democrats’ technology. “You can write down that I laughed when you asked me that,” said Rospars, founder of Blue State Digital. For Republicans to build a massive Internet presence, he said, they would have to abandon opposition to issues with popular support like expanding background checks on gun buyers and allowing illegal immigrants to earn citizenship.

“It’s very difficult to imagine them marshaling a digital program like ours because the Republican strategy does not involve people,” Rospars said. “A campaign like ours and a party like ours takes grassroots organization and people very seriously, and then you have a digital program to empower those people and get them to become better leaders and engage in the political process.”

Democrats were last outgunned in 2004 by Bush’s re-election campaign, hailed for micro-targeting voters and boosting turnout in select constituencies. The small-donor, online fundraising network pioneered that year by Democratic candidate Howard Dean, who went on to lead the Democratic National Committee, helped set the stage for the party’s takeover of Congress in 2006. While the Obama team took campaign technology to new heights under the pressure of a fiercely competitive Democratic primary in 2008 and a tough re-election in 2012, the Republican Party was hamstrung by weaker ties to Silicon Valley and a more conservative culture that didn’t place a premium on innovation.

MGA claims it will lap the Democrats by allowing campaigns without the staff and resources of a presidential candidate to organize and manage their data. Clients so far include the National Republican Congressional Committee, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, an outside group that supported former Massachusetts Senate candidate Gabriel Gomez, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s Conservatives for Higher Standards, the National Association of Manufacturers and the Boeing Company.

“The ability to use the technology is only heightened by them taking it to market,” said Fagen, a veteran of the Bush campaign and White House. “It’s not like a campaign organization that ends and people go off in their own directions and all of the knowledge dissipates.”

That’s what some Democrats fear will happen with the talent and infrastructure of the Obama campaign, which has splintered between a lobbying offshoot, Organizing for Action, the Democratic National Committee and a handful of for-profit ventures. Looming large over the 2016 election is whether a candidate who lacks Barack Obama’s charisma can replicate his digital prowess.

Some of Republican tech gurus eager to play catch-up have soldiered through a few election cycles but are now seeing their profiles and budgets rise. They include Patrick Ruffini, who worked for Bush’s re-election and the RNC; Brian Donahue, another Bush re-election and RNC alum; Zach Condry, who manages New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s web site; Cyrus Krohn, a Microsoft and Yahoo veteran advising Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell; Vincent Harris, who helped elect Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and is also advising McConnell; and Wesley Donahue, who guided ex-South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint’s online strategy.

Among the many scapegoats of the Romney campaign was Zac Moffatt, his digital director. In the wake of the scathing RNC review, the party hired Andy Barkett, a former Facebook engineer, as its chief technology officer.

“You could pull together the top Republican talent and squeeze them into a conference room,” Musser quipped. “As the Republican Party was psychoanalyzing itself to death, we put our heads down and built the tools to solve the problem.”

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