The Democratic Party has a clear technology advantage over the GOP right now. Many are now asking a single question: “is this a permanent advantage?”
I’m pretty confident that the advantage won’t be permanent. In my book, The MoveOn Effect, I offer a theory of “outparty innovation incentives.” Simply put, new technological opportunities sync well with countermobilization. The party in power tends to maintain their existing systems and reward their victorious campaigners and consultants. The party out-of-power tends to search around for new ways to “change the game.” Particularly after losing consecutive election cycles, they tend to fire the old “coaches” and bring in new ones. The same pattern holds among partisan advocacy efforts. It’s a lot easier to build membership, funding, and momentum when you’re opposing government overreach (The Left had “Win Without War,” the Right had “Keep Your Government Hands Off Our Medicare) than when you’re trying to move major legislation through the sausage-making process.
Steve Friess at Politico offers us the latest glimpse at GOP efforts to address the campaign technology gap. The whole article is worth reading, but three quotes stood out for me as particularly noteworthy:
At their recent leadership retreat, Chairman Reince Priebus and others sounded the bell for closing the vast technological divide that made all the difference for Democrats in getting out the votelast fall in numbers that stunned the pundit class. “Let’s host Skype-based training sessions and Google hangouts on campaign strategy, fundraising, door-to-door advocacy, and digital tools,” Priebus urged at the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting in Charlotte, N.C. “We need to give the next generation of organizers access to the brightest experts.” (emphasis added)
Notice that phrase, “the next generation of organizers.” It wasn’t so long ago that Republicans were treating “organizer” as a punchline. From Sarah Palin on down, the craft of organizing has been viewed with active disdain. I attended a Political Innovation Summit at Google last Friday, and top Republican technologists went out of their way to announce that “the stigma is gone” from the title. Republican party leadership realizes that message consultants can’t win elections on their own. I’d call that a necessary-but-insufficient condition for broader changes within the party.
“We absolutely need a centralized database to record voter history, online and offline interactions and add in demographic data that we can learn from and social data we can learn from to get a full picture of our customers,” [Peter] Pasi [Santorum digital consultant] said.
“The nature of conservatism is about individual free-market thinking and competition and not about looking to create a strong collective for the betterment of society,” said [Vincent] Harris, who also managed the digital efforts for Newt Gingrich, Allen West and Linda McMahon in 2012. “It’s almost a socialist premise. But Republicans need to adopt that collective mind-set because we are going up against a data giant and a data giant that is built by really, really smart tech geeks that Republicans simply don’t have.”
In this second quote, we see the personnel hurdle that Republicans face. Vincent Harris helped coordinate social media for Ted Cruz’s Senate vicotry. He recognizes the need for better technology and, in particular, top-down coordination. But he also thinks that party-based voter files are “almost socialist.” That is an… extraordinarily dumb thing for him to believe (apparently socialism is both top-down and bottom-up!). Last time I checked, corporations in a free-market were pretty good at behaving as an oligopoly when it suited their shared interests. Constructing a good voter file doesn’t run against conservative ideology. It just runs against the interests of existing stakeholders who currently make a lot of money off of the inefficiencies in the current data market. Losing another election or two can do wonders for clarifying their “values,” just as it did for the Democrats after 2004.
The problem for the Republicans is that even if they could get it together to create their own VAN-style system and use it properly, the Democrats now have years of historic data that continue to expand. It would take years to catch up if only because fine-tuning and collecting such information is a laborious task that is difficult to hasten, Harris said.
“We better all put our egos behind us and do what’s best for the party,” Harris said. “We’re now nine months out from the 2013 election, 21 months to the mid-terms. People are saying the right things, but not much is being done.”
This third and final quote helps explain why outparty innovation incentives tend toward the next wave of technological innovations. There’s nothing stopping Republicans from constructing a better data system that competes with NGP/VAN. But it is going to take them a lot of time, and the Democrats’ first-mover advantage means they will continue to refine the dataset and reap increasing value from it. Republican will likely invest in data for the 2014 midterm, but they are unlikely to catch up right away.
The Democratic Party network currently has a technological advantage. But new technologies continue to ripen all the time. As Republicans start hiring new organizers and technologists, they’re going to be looking to the latest wave of technological innovation, experimenting with untested strategies and tactics. A few of them will work out — perhaps not in 2014, but almost certainly by 2016. As Democrats continue to focus on perfecting the tools which worked so well in 2008 and 2012, this creates space for Republicans to assert an advantage in the next area of internet-mediated mobilization (whatever it may be).