The GOP’s Data Surge
Republican strategists work to improve data analytics in advance of the midterm elections.


Eliana Johnson

For two days last week, Republican strategists, political consultants, and digital gurus convened in a sleek, wood-paneled conference room on the third floor of New York City’s Standard hotel. Their mission: to reverse the fortunes of the Republican party by leveraging voter data, technology, and public opinion to win elections.

More than a year removed from an election year in which Democrats used data to gain insights that allowed them to swing a handful of races, including at the top of the ticket, those gathered were determined that the GOP do better in this year’s midterm elections. Among the attendees: National Republican Senatorial Committee executive director Rob Collins; Alex Lundry, the Romney campaign’s director of data science; GOP pollster Kristin Soltis Anderson; Johnny DeStefano, a former aide to John Boehner, now serving as the president of Data Trust, the organization providing a warehouse for Republicans’ voter files; and representatives from Google, Facebook, and AOL. 

Top party officials have readily admitted that the GOP has work to do in the realm of data collection and digital targeting. The next step, Collins says, is to “start getting better,” and that is easier said than done. The goal of last week’s meeting, in the words of one attendee, was to “get everybody on the same page” ahead of the midterm elections.

Campaign strategists and consultants were urged to stop handwringing about how to allocate resources between mail, television, and the Web and instead to use voter data to determine the best method for persuading individual voters. That, speakers explained, allows campaigns to allocate resources efficiently: to deploy volunteers to the neighborhoods where their efforts are most likely to pay off or to pay for advertisements only where persuadable voters are most likely to see them.

That is what the Obama campaign and Democrats did with ruthless effectiveness in 2012.

The Republican National Committee’s post-election report recommended creating a new data platform accessible to conservative groups and candidates, bringing data crunchers into the RNC, and ​identifying strategists and donors to build an external data-analytics institute. There are signs of progress. The RNC has moved to centralize its voter data through Data Trust and made key hires, among them Andy Barkett, formerly of Facebook, who now serves as the RNC’s chief technology officer. Barkett plugged the committee’s latest efforts to top-dollar donors at events including an American Crossroads retreat in October and a September fundraiser hosted by New York Jets owner Woody Johnson.

Multiple sources say that tension between Data Trust, effectively a subsidiary of the RNC, and Themis, a voter database funded by the Koch brothers, has dissipated under donor demands that Republicans not duplicate their efforts. Representatives from the two organizations have been in conversation over the past six months to discuss the possibility of cooperation but have yet to reach an agreement. The Koch-affiliated group, which employs just under 50 people, including in-house statisticians, has touted the superiority of its data. Data Trust, created in 2011 to shoulder the cost of building and managing the GOP’s voter file — the party was looking for ways to deal with debt left in the wake of Michael Steele’s chairmanship — has evolved more slowly but, according to a GOP strategist, is finally “coming out of its slumber.” Among donors, the strategist says, there is “no appetite” for competition between the two groups. “The idea that there’s going to be competition at the realm of raw data is a bit silly,” says Republican strategist Patrick Ruffini, the CEO of the digital-media firm Engage.

Nonetheless, the RNC’s announcement in May that Liberty Works, a group backed by Karl Rove ally and Silicon Valley venture capitalist Dick Boyce, would build the platform through which Data Trust could manage its data, effectively put Rove and the Kochs, two of the most influential forces on the right, at loggerheads. The RNC’s announcement later last spring that the short-lived partnership had come to an end has led, sources say, to some cooperation between Data Trust and Themis.

The biggest hurdle is translating these efforts into electoral victories, and there the signs are less inspiring. When numerous polls showed Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe with a comfortable lead against Republican Ken Cuccinelli in the Virginia governor’s race, the RNC simply stopped investing in television ads and voter-mobilization efforts. “We had twelve months to get the polling right,” says Yale political scientist Luke Thompson, a consultant to the NRSC. Yet the party, relying on internal polls that had McAuliffe cruising to a seven-point victory, spent just $3 million on the race, compared with the $9 million it expended in 2009. “McAuliffe’s people knew all along it was going to be a two-point race,” Thompson says.