How Many Technologists Does the Republican Party Need?

Over at DailyKos, Markos Moulitsas offers a spirited defense of what I term the theory of “ideological congruence” in partisan technology adoption.

There’s a reason that conservatives have fallen so far behind liberals on the technology front, and it truly is cultural. Go read Wired or Ars Technica or The Verge or any gadget blog and note how overwhelmingly liberal the publications are—pro-science, pro-progress and pro-net neutrality. They don’t believe that AT&T would provide better service without government regulations or interference. They loathe our current intellectual property regime (both copyright and trademark). They want something done about global climate change (that science stuff) and stem cell research (more of that science stuff).

Markos is making an important point here.  Silicon Valley votes Democratic.  Google and Apple employees donate Democratic.  When technologists volunteer for campaigns, they tend to volunteer for the Dems.  That makes it a lot easier for Dems to hire talented analysts, engineers, and digital campaigners.  It’s a built-in advantage that has nothing to do with the outparty status.  I don’t expect it will go away any time soon — big databases aren’t inherently progressive, but the people who build them often are.

That said, I often worry that we make too much of these ideological bridges.  The Republican Party doesn’t need a majority of Silicon Valley residents or Wired readers to come work for, donate to, or volunteer with them.  They just need a few dozen good ones.  Plenty of wealthy technologists have a right/libertarian bent.  Plenty of others believe that campaign technologies should be evenly distributed, and are happy to work for Republicans.  In the early years of the World Wide Web, conservatives carved out a lead with sites like the DrudgeReport and FreeRepublic.  Until after the 2004 election, they also had better campaign data practices than their Democratic opponents.  The ideological affinity of Silicon Valley didn’t change in the intervening years; Democrats just came to their senses and started investing in technology, testing, and training.

The real challenge facing Republican campaigns today isn’t their hostility to scientific analysis or scientists themselves*.  The real challenge is a series of intra-party fights among networks of candidates, donors, campaigners and consultants.  When Republican digital strategists like Patrick Ruffini talk about launching new organizations to replicate the Democratic successes like the New Organizing Institute, Analyst Group, and New Media Ventures, he surely knows that he’ll face some stiff internal competition. Romney’s digital director Zac Moffatt made a ton of money on the 2012 election.  I imagine his company, Targeted Victory, will try to resist the new competition from Ruffini and company.

The hidden story of the current Democratic tech advantage is that losing in consecutive cycles (2000, 2002, 2004) led for major internal calls to “fire the consultants.”  This created a market opportunity for new consultants and campaigners, many of whom came out of the old Dean campaign.  Firms like BlueStateDigital probably wouldn’t have gotten off the ground if Al Gore or John Kerry had been president in the last decade.  Dems would’ve kept hiring Bob Shrum and company, and they would’ve kept demanding that campaign investments and databases remain exactly as they were.  In American elections, to the winner goes the spoils, and to the loser goes the incentive to try something different next time.

I don’t think Republicans are going to fix the sorry state of their campaign technology overnight.  And one reason is certainly the ideological disconnect between (most) Republican elites and (most) technological elites.  But the much bigger factor is that they aren’t quite ready to fire the old and invest in the new just yet.  Party elites are quick to point out the 2010 victory.  2012 was just “bad luck,” or “lack of message discipline,” or “the hurricane,” even.  Republicans haven’t experienced the same series of depressing losses that Democrats experienced from 2000-2004 (and it isn’t like 1994 or 1998 provided any comfort to Democrats either).  We’re now seeing the start of those conservative intra-party fights, but I don’t expect them to finish any time soon.

Make no mistake, though.  If Republicans work out those internal fights and make a concerted effort to invest in infrastructure and hire new people, they’ll be able to find plenty of candidates.  Silicon Valley may be a blue region, but there’s still enough red to go around.


*It sure doesn’t help, though.