Republicans Launch Mission To Turn Up Their Digital Game
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Republicans frankly admitted this week that they are losing badly to Democrats in the realm of digital politics. So the GOP has some new and ambitious plans. NPR's Ari Shapiro has been talking with digital strategists in both parties about the techie race to the next election.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Monday's report from the Republican National Committee puts it bluntly, quote, "Republicans must catch up on how we utilize technology in our campaigns. The Obama team is several years ahead of everyone else in its technological advantage."
PATRICK RUFFINI: Democratic investments, certainly, in technology have only compounded over the last decade.
SHAPIRO: Patrick Ruffini runs a Republican digital strategy firm called Engage. He was the Bush-Cheney campaign's webmaster in 2004, and he says Democrats have pulled further ahead of Republicans year by year.
RUFFINI: What started out as maybe a smaller advantage when online politics were just getting going have snowballed into quite a significant advantage. And how do Republicans not only catch up but leapfrog that?
SHAPIRO: That's the key question the GOP is asking itself right now. Republicans interviewed hundreds of professionals in the party for this week's report, identifying dozens of areas where the party needs to improve. Number one on the list was data analytics. That's a broad term. Basically, it means getting better information and the technology to analyze it, information about who your supporters could be and how to make them vote.
Republican Vincent Harris runs a digital strategy firm in Texas. He says the Obama campaign nailed it last year with a canvassing app.
VINCENT HARRIS: This canvassing app used geolocation technology to inform individual Obama volunteers of their neighbors' political preferences. It delivered a script directly to their phones on what to say to their neighbors.
SHAPIRO: And those scripts weren't just thrown together. The Obama campaign tested every word of the script to find the most persuasive language. Republicans now say their party has to adopt that technological know-how and the culture of testing. But Harris says Democrats have a built-in advantage.
HARRIS: A lot of these younger, more tech-savvy entrepreneurs aren't Republican.
SHAPIRO: Aaron Ginn knows that firsthand. He worked on digital strategy for the Romney campaign. When we asked to interview him over a landline instead of a cellphone, he said, are you kidding? Out here in Silicon Valley, landlines are as rare as Republicans.
AARON GINN: I think there's a chicken-and-egg problem, right. Like, there are some digital consultants who say, oh, these people don't exist within our party so we shouldn't even try, and there are some people who say, like, oh, we're trying, but it's just really hard, like, the demand isn't there. But I think there needs to be a sense of urgency because it is urgent.
SHAPIRO: On Monday, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus seemed to convey that sense of urgency. He talked about plans to hire new tech experts, overhaul the GOP's Web presence and more.
REINCE PRIEBUS: By doing all of this, we will enter 2014 and 2016 with a completely revitalized approach to campaign mechanics and technology.
SHAPIRO: Meanwhile, Democrats are not just sitting and waiting for Republicans to catch up. Jeremy Bird was the national field director for Obama's re-election campaign. Now, he runs a firm called 270 Strategies.
JEREMY BIRD: There's a great entrepreneurial spirit in the progressive world right now, and people are really trying to learn and push for new things. And I think that you could see as much change between 2012 and 2016 as we saw between '08 and '12.
SHAPIRO: Nobody can predict what digital campaigns will look like in four years, but there are already interesting ideas out there. At the Republican consulting firm Red Edge, Bret Jacobsen talks about augmented reality. Imagine a campaign volunteer who scans the neighborhood and gets information about the businesses and homes he sees.
BRET JACOBSEN: You can look and see, you know, sort of what a building's taxes might be. There's just a wealth of information that can be used for education and persuasion, and it's really exciting.
SHAPIRO: Many in the GOP feel that sense of excitement right now. They know the party is behind in this race. But at least now, everybody's decided to run. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.