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National Politics|By Elizabeth Wilner, July 16, 2013

Michael Simon, 33 in September, runs one of the near-dozen new firms that deal in the Big Data that helped power President Obama’s re-election. HaystaqDNA is now busy helping corporate clients identify potential new customers. Asked what he hopes will become of what he and fellow Obama alums built, Simon says, “lasting dominance,” so that “when the time comes to go back to Iowa, we will still be the leading edge of what’s possible. Republicans never catch up.”

Adam Schaeffer, 36, feels “grossly, vastly outnumbered.” His firm, Evolving Strategies, conducts field and online experiments to improve persuasion, mobilization and voter targeting for center-right clients. Asked what he hopes his side will achieve with analytics in the next few years, he says, “I'd be very happy getting halfway to where the left is by next year on all these fronts.”

Schaeffer believes this is doable. Off-year and midterm elections offer “cleaner” environments in which to model without the saturation of a presidential race. Less information and contact from the media and campaigns means any effects of experiments would be easier to spot. He’s just not sure the galvanizing will exists to knit scattershot efforts into something more lasting.

More senior Republican targeters agree: It doesn’t. While Democrats have a flourishing industry of privatized data banks, serial experiments and competing consultancies, the party that espouses free markets and entrepreneurship is on Stalin’s Five-Year Plan when it comes to embracing Big Data. Democrats saw the viable business model of moving data outside the party but selling it to all friendly comers. Republicans basically moved their data out of the party in name—i.e., the Data Trust—and tax status only as a way to manage the cost of maintaining it.

As a result, analytics remain bottled within the national Republican party structure. One respected party entrepreneur half-jokes that his fellow Republicans should remember the history lessons of Teddy Roosevelt’s “trust busting” and “free the GOP marketplace to create the best data and tools for every Republican candidate."

The main problem, he says, is that GOP state chairs historically have used access to the voter files not to win other offices but to keep their own, doling it out to local party and elected officials. Far from automatically winding up in the hands of their campaigns and consultants, the files often don’t. Candidates don’t benefit from the information. Operatives don’t grow comfortable working with the data. And the great potential of analytics to help campaigns figure “how you best spend your resources,” as Simon describes it, is squandered and forfeited to the left.

The problem has worsened as the Republican National Committee has refined its focus to the presidency, the GOP entrepreneur says. The voter files are more up to date for battleground states (of which there weren’t many in 2012) than for states where demand otherwise would be high.

Also, as a rule, this entrepreneur says, Republican candidates who do gain access only do so once they’ve become nominees. At that point, if they’re granted access, it’s free. The prospect of eventually getting free data keeps campaigns from buying it from private sources, stunting the potential growth of consultancies. It also keeps candidates hooked on the free data regardless of its quality.

Republicans’ initial push on analytics was forceful. Determined to follow up on their 2000 victory with a more emphatic 2004 win, the RNC pumped money into companies such as TargetPoint Consulting and National Media Research, Planning and Placement.

(Check out our Big Data At-A-Glance for the most up-to-date roster of who’s who and where in campaign analytics.)

But after 2004, they took their foot off the gas while Democrats gunned it. Campaign finance developments were forcing progressive interest groups to hunt for more small-dollar donors. That spawned Catalist and the Analyst Institute. Unions in particular, facing shrinking membership, drove the party’s embrace of modeling and experimentation.

In Chicago, the embrace of technology and analytics was prompted by the needs of an upstart presidential contender who faced off against Hillary Clinton and the Democratic consulting establishment. “We had no gurus,” Simon says. More than just new approaches, Obama’s historic candidacy brought out atypical talent—the kind of talent Republicans are more painstakingly recruiting. (Ask any Obama analyst, what did you do before 2012? The answer is as likely to be “particle physicist” as anything else.)

Credit the RNC for seeming to understand that they’re leading by default. Their laudably realistic 2012 post-mortem report calls for more election-season experimentation, including in urban markets during the 2013 big-city mayoral races, and for new approaches to recruiting talent. The report’s weakness is that it suggests, understandably, these functions remain under party control.

The silver lining for Republicans? Schaeffer points out, “There’s a lot that we do know that’s in the public sphere” thanks to published academic research, often in partnership with interest groups on the left, and best-practice guidance from progressive efforts like the New Organizing Institute (NOI).

It’s also thanks to Democratic analysts who, in the interest of ginning up business or just getting credit, have told reporters some ingredients of the secret sauce. Compare that to the Republican strategist who I heard might be doing some promising experiments but who, when contacted, replied, “Sorry but I am not talking about that publicly and nor should be the person you heard it from, ha.”

(Check out The Cook Political Report's Big Data At-A-Glance for our list of the major players and new faces in the world of political Big Data.)

The time is ripe for making up ground, and Simon recognizes that if the left doesn’t keep innovating, “Republicans could quickly catch up.” Not only do 2013 and 2014 offer fallow off-year fields in which to experiment, but 2016 dangles the kind of opportunity the Obama team faced in 2008: an open presidential primary in which risk-taking and innovation could pay off for some candidate in spades. Donors are more interested in backing research during big election years, Schaeffer notes.

A timely investment in analytics also could help Republicans with some of their demographic challenges. As Simon points out, “analytics enable us to be less ham-handed and cheesy, to speak to people as individuals and not so much as groups”—to treat people on all the various factors that make up their respective identities rather than focus on just one.

The seasoned entrepreneur suggests that to the extent the left’s analytics renaissance was Obama-centric, it’s not clear that the inspiration or the data will transfer to future presidential nominees. He favors—as the RNC’s new Facebook alum chief technology officer apparently also does—making the voter files directly available to campaigns and consultancies to finally help nurture an industry that will exist independently of any candidate.

Schaeffer believes the burden of proof is on firms like his own. “Our job this year is to really demonstrate what can be done and what can be learned.” But is the burden really on data entrepreneurs like him? So long as data is treated as a means of keeping parochial influence, Republicans may never launch the kind of industry needed to help them remain nationally influential.