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Can the Republican Party save itself from its obsolete approach to digital technology?

Robert Draper has a LONG PIECE in the current issue of The New York Times Magazine dealing with the problems facing the Republican Party because of its lack of sophisticated digital technology (as dramatized in the article by the illustration above).

A few excerpts:

One afternoon last month, I paid a visit to two young Republicans named Bret Jacobson and Ian Spencer, who work in a small office in Arlington, Va., situated above an antique store and adjacent to a Japanese auto shop. Their five-man company, Red Edge, is a digital-advocacy group for conservative causes, and their days are typically spent designing software applications for groups like the Heritage Foundation, the Republican Governors Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Lately, however, Jacobson and Spencer have taken up evangelizing — and the sermon, delivered day after day to fellow conservatives in the form of a 61-point presentation, is a pitiless we-told-you-so elucidation of the ways in which Democrats have overwhelmed Republicans with their technological superiority.

They walked me through a series of slides showing the wide discrepancies between the two campaigns. “And just to make them feel really bad,” Jacobson said as he punched another image onto the overhead screen. “We say, ‘Just wait — this is the most important slide.’ And this is what kills them, because conservatives always look at young voters like the hot girl they could never date.” He read aloud from the text: “1.25 million more young people supported Obama in 2012 over 2008.

(Snip)

Back in August 2011, Jacobson wrote an op-ed in Forbes alerting Republicans to Obama’s lead on the digital front. His warnings were disregarded. Then last summer, he and Spencer approached the conservative super PAC American Crossroads with their digital-tool-building strategies and, they say, were politely ignored. It’s understandable, then, that a touch of schadenfreude is evident when Jacobson and Spencer receive the policy-group gurus and trade-association lobbyists who file into Red Edges’s office to receive a comeuppance.

“Business is booming for us,” Jacobson said. “We’ll double or triple our bottom line this year, easily. But this isn’t about getting new business. We need the entire right side of the aisle to get smart fast. And the only way they can do that is to appreciate how big the chasm was.”

Exhibit A is the performance of the Romney brain trust, which has suffered an unusually vigorous postelection thrashing for badly losing a winnable race. Criticism begins with the candidate — a self-described data-driven chief executive who put his trust in alarmingly off-the-mark internal polls and apparently did not think to ask his subordinates why, for example, they were operating on the assumption that fewer black voters would turn out for Obama than in 2008. Romney’s senior strategist, Stuart Stevens, may well be remembered by historians, as one House Republican senior staff member put it to me, “as the last guy to run a presidential campaign who never tweeted.” (“It was raised many times with him,” a senior Romney official told me, “and he was very categorical about not wanting to and not thinking it was worth it.”)

Under the stewardship of Zac Moffatt, whose firm, Targeted Victory, commandeered the 2012 digital operations of the Romney campaign, American Crossroads and the Republican National Committee, Team Romney managed to connect with 12 million Facebook friends, triple that of Obama’s operation in 2008; but Obama in 2012 accrued 33 million friends and deployed them as online ambassadors who in turn contacted their Facebook friends, thereby demonstrably increasing the campaign’s get-out-the-vote efforts in a way that dwarfed the Republicans’. While Romney’s much-hyped get-out-the-vote digital tool, Orca, famously crashed on Election Day, Obama’s digital team unveiled Narwhal, a state-of-the-art data platform that gave every member of the campaign instant access to continuously updated information on voters, volunteer availability and phone-bank activity. And despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars, the Romney television-ad-making apparatus proved to be no match for the Obama operation, which enlisted Rentrak, the data corporation for satellite and cable companies, through which it accrued an entirely new layer of information about each and every consumer, giving the campaign the ability to customize cable TV ads.

“They were playing chess while we were playing checkers,” a senior member of the campaign’s digital team somberly told another top Romney aide shortly after the election.

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