Politics & Policy

RNC’s Data Push Greeted with Skepticism

The GOP is trying to become more data-savvy, but the path is not always smooth.

‘The future’s already here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet,” Chuck DeFeo, the Republican National Committee’s chief digital officer, tells me. He’s talking about the Democratic party’s advantage in the realm of data analytics, which in the 2012 presidential election helped propel President Obama to victory over Mitt Romney.

With the midterm elections in sight, the RNC last week unveiled Para Bellum Labs — para bellum is Latin for “prepare for war” — an initiative designed to help the party and its candidates bridge the technology gap. DeFeo describes Para Bellum as a startup company housed within the RNC.

#ad#Within the broader conservative movement, the effort is being greeted with a mixture of hope and skepticism. While digital startups have proliferated on the left, some wonder whether a party committee is capable of fostering the sort of culture that breeds technological innovation. Others say the party’s decision to prohibit insurgent candidates from accessing its data will inhibit progress.

Regardless, the RNC is now focused on staffing its in-house innovation hub, and it is recruiting hard. In a highly produced YouTube video, the RNC showcases cheery Para Bellum employees — 14 of them, to date — singing the company’s praises from behind sleek Apple computers. “We are here to push the envelope when it comes to how you manage, analyze, and take advantage of data,” says Azarias Reda, the RNC’s newly hired chief data officer. “The cool thing about this is that I am literally trying to work to elect the next president,” another employee says.

Nearly a thousand résumés have poured in since Para Bellum’s February 4 launch. At the same time, talent scouts are scouring the West Coast for digital gurus willing to forsake jobs at traditional Silicon Valley startups to help revive the fortunes of the GOP.

The RNC began, at the behest of donors, to turn its attention to data analytics in the wake of the 2012 election. It brought in Facebook’s Andy Barkett as chief technology officer in June of last year; DeFeo as chief data officer in July; and Reda, a Ph.D. in computer science and a LinkedIn alumnus, just last month.

DeFeo talks about effecting a cultural shift within the RNC, of fostering an environment where there is an “imperative to innovate” and to “propel yourself forward faster.” “We’re a startup in every sense of the word, except we didn’t form an LLC,” he says. Para Bellum also differs in another important regard: It is part of the national committee and, while it is funded to the tune of about $17 million, the risk-reward calculus of a typical venture-capital-backed start-up is absent.

On the data front, much of the day-to-day drudge work is being performed by Data Trust, the for-profit venture established by a handful of former GOP heavyweights including former RNC chairmen Mike Duncan, Jim Nicholson, and Ed Gillespie. Its links to the RNC run deep: Barkett, the RNC’s chief technology officer, serves simultaneously as CTO of Data Trust.

The company was created in 2011 to shoulder the cost of maintaining and improving the party’s voter file, a list of registered voters knit together from local election rolls. As a part of the RNC’s new focus on data analytics, Data Trust is now building a data-management tool known as VRM — voter relationship management — the primary user interface to the RNC’s data, which will allow campaign volunteers and others to map neighborhoods, create walk lists, and feed the data they gather back into the system.

Setting up Data Trust, party officials grappled with how much influence and access to afford outside forces, like a rival Koch data initiative known as i360 (previously called Themis) and tea-party groups that often back candidates trying to buck sitting Republicans. Though the RNC’s interests initially prevailed, personnel moves indicate that the party’s grip on Data Trust may be loosening. Executive director and former RNC chief of staff Anne Hathaway is reportedly no longer with the company, and Mike Duncan, who was serving as chairman of Data Trust’s board of directors, no longer holds that position. Data Trust president Johnny DeStefano did not respond to a request for comment.

Para Bellum isn’t the first GOP attempt to step up its tech game; it’s only the latest. It’s in part because previous attempts to centralize the party’s voter file — initiatives like Voter Vault and Data Center — didn’t meet with much success that many are casting a skeptical eye on Para Bellum’s dramatic rollout.

One senior Republican digital strategist tells me that in all his years working in GOP politics, he has yet to tap Data Trust or its predecessors, “mostly because I can get better information elsewhere.” He’s doubtful the party’s latest undertaking will meet with much success, he says, because “I’ve been flirted with by this girl enough that, at this point, I don’t think I’m going to get her phone number.” The strategist, a male in his 30s, tells me, “I’m probably a 67-year-old woman in GOP data.”

Critics of the RNC’s effort also level more substantive challenges. They question whether a political party, subject to limitations on soft-money contributions and the crushing demands of electoral politics, is capable of incubating a startup culture that will breed technological innovation. They also oppose the party’s decision to limit access to its voter file.

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“The key to innovation isn’t going to be a centralized Washington, D.C., approach,” says Mark Harris, who managed Pennsylvania senator Pat Toomey’s 2010 campaign and is currently working for insurgent candidates Matt Bevin (Ky.) and Chris McDaniel (Miss.). “It’s going to be consultants, activists, and volunteers across the country trying different things” with data. Nonetheless, Harris lauds the party’s move as “a good step forward” and hopes the RNC continues to make its voter file more widely available.

To be sure, the party has considered the alternative, both when it helped to establish Data Trust and more recently. Though it has had discussions with i360, the rival data project established by the Koch Brothers, it never reached an agreement with them. Tellingly, i360 representatives were not invited to a two-day digital conference held last month in New York City that was organized by the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

#ad#There are obvious advantages to keeping the party’s voter file under the RNC’s roof. Data and information will be centralized in one location that candidates can access free of charge, and the party’s presidential candidate in 2016 will be able to tap into rich, detailed data from the House and Senate campaigns that took place in 2012 and 2014. When the data is scattered, by contrast, it is frequently lost, along with the insights that can be gleaned from it.

Within the RNC, there is a lot of talk about how the Democrats mastered data analytics, and party officials now are consciously modeling their efforts on those of their adversaries.

But there are crucial differences, both in the GOP’s tactics and in the political terrain. On the Democratic side, the centralization of data took place largely outside of the party infrastructure. Though RNC officials say that Data Trust is modeled on Catalist, the firm founded in 2006 by Bill Clinton deputy Harold Ickes to centralize the party’s voter file, Data Trust’s link to the RNC is far tighter than was Catalist’s, at its inception, to the Democratic National Committee. Working across across the left-wing spectrum Democratic candidates and third-party groups, including unions, Catalist amassed a robust data set. At the same time, the DNC built up and maintained its own voter file; its list management, known as the “Co-op,” is a rival to Catalist. 

There is a political factor, too, that Republicans will not be able to duplicate. Labor unions — products of grassroots organizing themselves, possessing vast member lists, and considered non-partisan and tax-exempt in the eyes of the law — have given Democrats an enormous leg up in the data wars. They provided their member lists to Catalist, for example, and it was the AFL-CIO that in 2006 founded the Analyst Institute, a think tank devoted to discovering ways to turn out grassroots voters. (The Obama campaign in 2012 would pluck Analyst Institute scientists from Washington, D.C., and embed them in its ranks.)

Unions have also used their dues to bankroll several Democratic tech startups that have become high-powered, profit-making entities. Take Blue State Digital, which developed Obama for America’s online campaign. The AFL-CIO helped get the company off the ground and eventually sold it to WPP, the world’s largest advertising company. Because of the way unions are treated by the tax code, says a Republican strategist, Blue State “worked for the AFL-CIO for $50,000 a month and never produced a single product for them. That allowed them to get a whole bunch of seed money to get up and running as a corporation without actually producing product for commercial customers.” That is an advantage that, as the RNC launches its own start-up, it will not have.

The RNC nonetheless argues that it is positioned to surpass the Democrats’ efforts. DeFeo explains that the Democrats’ data analytics were so centered around President Obama that their efforts are not “evenly distributed throughout the Democratic party.” DeFeo asserts that a rising tech tide at the RNC will lift all GOP candidates to victory in 2014 and in years after. If he’s right, many Republicans will be pleasantly surprised.

— Eliana Johnson is media editor of National Review Online.

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