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Republicans Launch Mission To Turn Up Their Digital Game


By Ari Shapiro

Listen Now:
Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Republican and Democratic parties have been in a digital arms race for years. And this week, Republicans frankly admitted that they are losing.

Now, the GOP has ambitious plans to improve its game.

Monday's report from the Republican National Committee puts it bluntly: "Republicans must catch up on how we utilize technology in our campaigns. The Obama team is several years ahead of everyone else in its technological advantage."

"Democratic investments, certainly in technology, have only compounded over the last decade," says Patrick Ruffini, who runs a Republican digital-strategy firm called Engage.

Ruffini was the Bush-Cheney campaign's webmaster in 2004; he says Democrats have pulled further ahead of Republicans year by year.

"What started out as maybe a smaller advantage when online politics were just getting going has snowballed into quite a significant advantage," he says. "How do Republicans not only catch up but leapfrog that?"

That's the key question the GOP is asking itself right now.

Republicans interviewed hundreds of professionals in the party for this week's report, identifying dozens of areas where the party needs to improve.

No. 1 on the list was data analytics. It's a broad term, but, in essence, it means getting better information — for example, who your supporters could be and how to make them vote — and the technology to analyze it.

Republican Vincent Harris runs Harris Media, a digital strategy firm in Texas. He says the Obama campaign nailed it last year with a canvassing app.

"This canvassing app used geolocation technology to inform individual Obama volunteers of their neighbors' political preferences," Harris says. "It delivered a script directly to their phones on what to say to their neighbors."

And those scripts weren't just thrown together: The Obama campaign tested every word of the scripts to find the most persuasive language.

Republicans now say their party has to adopt that technological know-how and the culture of testing. But Harris says Democrats have a built-in advantage.

"A lot of these younger, more tech-savvy entrepreneurs aren't Republican," he says.

Aaron Ginn knows that firsthand. He worked on digital strategy for the Mitt Romney campaign.

When asked to be interviewed over a landline instead of a cellphone, he responded: "Out in [Silicon Valley], a landline is about as rare as a conservative."

On the issue of the Republicans' digital-strategy deficit, Ginn says there's a "chicken-and-egg problem."

"There are some digital consultants who say this doesn't exist within our party so we shouldn't even try, and others say we're trying but it's really hard, the demand isn't there," he says. "I think there needs to be a sense of urgency because it is urgent."

On Monday, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus seemed to convey that sense of urgency.

He talked about plans to hire new tech experts, overhaul the GOP's Web presence and more.

"By doing all of this, we will enter 2014 and 2016 with a completely revitalized approach to campaign mechanics and technology," he said.

Meanwhile, Democrats are not just sitting and waiting for Republicans to catch up.

Jeremy Bird was the national field director for President Obama's re-election campaign. Now he runs a firm called 270 Strategies.

"There's a great entrepreneurial spirit in the progressive world right now, and people are really trying to learn and push for new things," Bird says. "I think that you could see as much change between 2012 and 2016 as we saw between '08 and '12."

Nobody can predict what digital campaigns will look like in four years, but some interesting ideas are already out there.

At the Republican consulting firm Red Edge, Bret Jacobsen talks about "augmented reality." Imagine a campaign volunteer who scans the neighborhood and gets information about the businesses and homes they see.

"You can look and see what a building's taxes might be," he says. "There's just a wealth of information that can be used for education and persuasion and it's really exciting."

Many in the GOP feel that sense of excitement right now. They know the party is behind in this race. But at least now, everybody's decided to run.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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