It was July 2012. I was a member of Mitt Romney’s National Finance Committee and, with the polls beginning to tighten, was feeling encouraged about his prospects to win the White House. That was until I spoke to Charles Harvey, one of the technology whizzes that the National Republican Congressional Committee brought in during the early 1990s to revamp their computer system, which helped give the GOP a technological edge in its 1994 takeover of the Congress.
He looked me in the eye and said, “Romney is doomed.”
He went on to tell me how the technology the campaign was using for its “Get Out The Vote” (GOTV) efforts was far inferior to that of the Obama campaign.
He then told me that there were other off-the-shelf solutions better than what the GOP had, but that most of those were from smaller companies that didn’t have the contacts or the political consultants to get to the decision-makers.
He then specifically told me what was missing from the GOP’s technology effort and how those gaps could be overcome in 30-45 days if the right people actually understood technology and moved quickly enough.
I reached out to friends close to GOP leadership to express my concern and received the expected “We’ve got everything covered and don’t need any help” response.
Well, on Election Day, November 6, 2012, the Romney campaign’s GOTV app, known as ORCA, was a total flop.
ORCA crashed repeatedly. Grassroots volunteers at the local level were frustrated and many eventually quit even trying to use the system.
After the election returns came in and word began to leak out that the GOP’s GOTV technology platform didn’t even work, I remembered my conversation with Charles Harvey four months earlier.
He was right.
In this day and age of ever-increasing technology, the Romney campaign had two strikes against it from the start as a result of using a technology platform that was significantly inferior to the Democrats.
In essence, from a technology standpoint, the GOP was driving a Rambler, and the Democrats were driving a Rolls-Royce on Election Day.
Real technology experts were further horrified when it was revealed that the GOP never had a dry run test of ORCA to see how the app would even work over the Internet. The first time they tried it out was on Election Day itself.
There is still a real technology gap between the GOP and the Democratic Party.
The GOP can nominate the best candidate and have the best message, but it will lose again in 2016 if it doesn’t close the technology gap that exists at the national level.
Over 90 million eligible voters did not vote in 2012. The votes are there for conservatives if they can close the technology gap and properly target their voters.
Interestingly, Mitt Romney actually won independent voters in 2012, while John McCain lost the independent vote in 2008, and yet they both got about the same number of popular votes. That further confirms that the GOP did a lousy job of turning out its base in 2012.
Reagan campaign veteran and Republican media strategist Marc Rotterman says, “The two best run campaigns I’ve seen in my lifetime were Reagan 1980 and Obama 2008. Reagan had the message and Obama’s use of technology and data was second to none. To date, I’m not sure the GOP has caught up.” Rottermans’s concerns are what worry knowledgeable observers on the right about 2016.
In talking with advisers to a number of GOP presidential campaigns, none have confidence in the Republican National Committee’s GOTV and analytics technology. One top aide even quipped, “Their data analytics technology is only about fundraising.”
Harper Reed was the Obama-Biden Chief Technology Officer who built a technology platform to make the process of voter contact more efficient and in real time.
On the right, no one understands this better than Voter Gravity CEO, Ned Ryun. Ryun says, “The goal is to have on a mass scale high value, live contacts with targeted voters that are tracked in real time. That’s what technology is about: making that process more efficient.”
Recently, Senator Ted Cruz and Governor John Kasich’s campaigns have talked openly about their analytics technology. Kasich is even using a data mining technology that targets possible supporters by looking not only at online data, but also off-line data like high school yearbooks and church lists.
Republicans need to be smart, not only in getting the best technology, but also in ensuring that the platforms that they’re relying on aren’t owned by companies that are already in the tank for the Democrats. And donors to presidential campaigns, the RNC, and SuperPACS need to insist that their dollars are spent narrowing the technology gap with Democrats.
The growing importance of having the right technology to win presidential elections is not confined to America. The Finnish outfit ZEF’s “electoral engine” and voting aid technology has been highly successful and was used in last year’s British parliamentary elections.
The 2016 election will be the most important one in our lifetime. Whomever we elect as commander in chief will face the most complex foreign policy and national security situation an American president has ever faced.
It’s a narrow pathway for the GOP and there is no room for error. Having the most advanced technology, big data, analytics, and GOTV, and tying it together in one platform will ensure that the 2016 Republican presidential nominee at least has a level playing field.
Van D. Hipp, Jr. is the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Army. He is the author of the newly released book, "The New Terrorism: How to Fight It and Defeat It." All of the author's proceeds go to the National Guard Educational Foundation to fund scholarships for children of fallen Guardsmen. www.thenewterrorism.com Follow him on Twitter @VanHipp.