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It’s the data, stupid -- GOP can't let loyalty and power trump innovation

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Mitt Romney’s loss last November precipitated acknowledgement within the GOP of the vast “digital divide” between the Democratic and Republican parties, and the role it plays in driving election outcomes. 

The GOP’s technological shortfalls have been well documented and widely discussed by pundits and political operatives, including the party’s own leadership. In fact, the RNC’s 2012 post-mortem, the “Growth & Opportunity Project,” identified a lack of “relevant data and analytics” as a primary reason for Republican losses in 2012.

The term “digital divide” is commonly used to describe the technological disparity between the parties, and I, too, use it for consistency’s sake. But what we saw in 2012 was not a divide -- it was a gaping void. Calling it a “divide” wrongly implies equal knowledge and capability.

Republicans have neither, and thus stick with what they know: outdated, expensive, time-intensive polling, accompanied by “spray and pray” television ad campaigns that have lost their effectiveness in recent years due the rise of DVRs and online television. 

I believe the GOP’s power structure magnifies the technological disadvantage the party now suffers.

Today, the vast majority of both Republican Party and SuperPAC dollars are still spent on these old models, rather than on innovative web-based technologies that can help Republicans drive and shape political discourse in real time.

Explanations for the disparity, however characterized, are varied. Some attribute it to a lack of technologists within the GOP, while others point to archaic microtargeting models and a shortage of data crunchers (information specialists who gather insights based on data and statistical models, rather than feelings or intuition). 

After analyzing the pre- and post-2012 digital strategies of both parties, I believe the GOP’s power structure magnifies the technological disadvantage the party now suffers. 

Furthermore, I agree wholeheartedly with the RNC’s post-election report, which pegged the GOP’s performance gap as more of a “culture problem” than a “technology problem.” 

As Harper Reed, Obama’s 2012 campaign chief technology officer, stated in a recent Washington Post article, “You can teach technologists politics. You don’t teach technology to politicians.”

Herein lies the crux of the Republican Party’s problem: the GOP establishment remains unwaveringly loyal to a handful of uber-consultants who raise money by leveraging relationships, rather than investing in the talent and technologies that would enable any consultant—uber or not—to be effective. 

Democrats, on the other hand, have relegated most of their fundraising efforts to in-house digital specialists, investing in cutting-edge technologies that enable any activist to become a fundraising force multiplier.

Whereas political consultants in the Democratic world are players, on the Republican side they’re kingmakers. 

This self-imposed centralization of power inhibits the “environment of intellectual curiosity” and “culture of data learning” that the RNC calls for in its post-election report. 

Ironically, it also prevents free-market principles, so cherished by Republicans, from fostering innovation that would ultimately benefit their party.

This reality also underscores the fundamental difference between Republicans and Democrats in their post-2004 campaign tactics. 

Democrats have access to real-time data and feedback from constituents, enabling them to better manage voter contact and shape political messaging. 

Republicans do not, and suffer the consequences of pushing messages that are outdated by days, hours, or mere minutes, due to their technological inability to adapt. 

Obama’s superiority in the digital communications realm gave his campaigns an advantage in both time (feedback is instantaneous) and space (messages are targeted), resulting in a superior return on investment for his campaign contributors. Unless Republicans make a similar commitment to developing their digital efforts, the existing divide will continue to grow.

There are green shoots of innovation on the Republican side that are operating outside of the political establishment. I’ve invested in some of them myself because as a technologist I know that the establishment is too wedded to centralized control and obsolete modes of communication to engage in the fast-paced world of 21st Century messaging, technology and communication. 

Hopefully, the party’s establishment and its “kingmakers” will view emerging technologies not as competition, but as a means of improving their own effectiveness.

Innovation in technology can bridge the digital divide, and give Republicans equal footing in an increasingly data-driven political arena. But in order for this development to take effect, the party’s leadership must recognize the dysfunctional personality trait that holds it back, and take action to change it. 

Once the party defines its strategic mission, technologists must be deployed to execute it rather than consultants who remain unaccountable, whether in victory or defeat.

John Jordan is CEO of Jordan Winery, co-founder of Labrador OmniMedia (creator of Tastevin, a tablet-based restaurant beverage list software), and is a member of the Hoover Institution’s Board of Overseers at Stanford University.

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