The Republican Party's losses in last week's election have brought about a moment of reckoning for conservatives, as GOP leaders, grassroots activists, and political strategists try to make sense of their defeat and figure out how the party can rebuild itself before the next election cycle.
By most accounts, Republicans were stunned by the election outcome, which exposed deep structural flaws that have put the party at an ideological, demographic, and strategic disadvantage when it comes to winning presidential elections.
Nowhere were the GOP's shortcomings more apparent than in the realm of data gathering and microtargeting, an increasingly important field of electioneering that provides campaigns with crucial insights into the nature of the electorate.
In interviews with Business Insider, Republican campaign strategists cited the GOP's data disadvantage as the central weakness holding the party back.
"As the Republican Party determines what it's going to do with itself, how it is going to restructure, the clock continues to tick," said Cyrus Krohn, a former director of digital strategy for the Republican National Committee and co-founder of the microtargeting startup Crowd Verb. "This is a problem that we cannot wait until six months before the midterm cycle to address."
Once a Republican campaign strength — Karl Rove was known for his mastery of microtargeting during George W. Bush's presidential campaigns — Krohn explained that Democrats made a concerted effort to catch up after the 2004 election, using dynamic data to complement the static data used by Republicans.
The result, he said, is a powerful apparatus with years of data insights, which far surpasses anything that has been developed on the Republican side.
"Data begets data, so the larger data that you have, the more insights you derive from it," Krohn said. "Basically what's happened now is the Republican Party has been working off of current but static data, not enabling hooks for information to flow freely in and out of the data base."
"That brings us to 2012, when no matter how sophisticated an offering you create, you've got a finite amount of data that you can leverage because you don't have the history of information at your disposal," he said. "So we can't see what was happening in the 2010 election, or over the course of the 2012 cycle, and amend it to our database."
"What's troubling is that until the Republican Party decides that they have this data problem, and invest in something quickly, every day that goes by, the Democrats are collecting more and more data."
Although the very nature of microtargeting data makes it hard for outsiders to assess, it's hard to underestimate its importance as a campaign tool, and thus the magnitude of the GOP's data problem.
At a very basic level, Democrats have used microtargeting to more accurately identify persuadable voters, and then target resources and materials in a way that maximizes the campaign's ability to win over those individual voters. Beyond voting, the data has helped campaigns to identify and mobilize their supporters, and then persuade them to engage in social networks and accomplish specific tasks like donating money, canvassing, making phone calls, etc. And at every step, more information is collected on these voters and fed back into the system.
"When you look at a political organization you have multiple facets — finance, communications, GOTV operations — if all of those different divisions are operating in silos and not sharing their data, then the sum isn't any greater than the parts," Krohn said. "The reasons that Democrats have gotten so ahead is because sharing of information and the give and take of data is not deployed into a silo system, but into a central nervous system that informs all aspects of the campaigns."
Even if the GOP is able to match the basic capabilities of Democrats' centralized data systems, some Republicans said it's not likely to be enough to close the data gap. After gaining a huge edge on Republicans in terms of raw data in 2008, Democrats — and specifically the Obama campaign — continued to take microtargeting to the next level in 2012, incorporating social science to inform data with insights from behavioral psychology and field experiments.
Too much flash
"A big part of the problem in 2012 was that the Romney guys were trying to beat Obama in 2008," said one GOP digital strategist, who asked not to be named in order to speak freely about the party. "They weren't doing what the Obama campaign was doing in 2012."
The strategist noted that the Romney campaign, like other Republicans, appeared to suffer from a focus on flashy technology that didn't translate into success with voters — a problem best exemplified by the Project ORCA disaster.
"A lot of effort was put into doing things that are shiny and new. They obviously thought it was going to be useful or cool or worth promoting," the strategist said. "At the end of the day, if you don't get voters to go vote and you don't get volunteers to make phone calls to get them to vote, none of it matters."
"You see this superficial stuff coming out of the Republican side and it's not going to be enough," the strategist added. "Maybe the party as a whole just needs to dig a little deeper."
The consequences of not closing the data gap were made painfully clear to Republicans last Tuesday, when the vote tallies revealed that the GOP had badly misjudged the electorate.
"The assumptions in the data we were using that was provided by the RNC — which was the same data all the campaigns were using — on election day the data wasn't a close fit," Republican strategist Dave Carney told Business Insider. "Clearly they didn't know what was going on. There seems to have been a disconnect with what was going on on the ground."
"If you know, for example, that there is an aggressive turnout effort to jack-up the African American vote in Cleveland, and that they're going to jack up the African American vote to 12 percent or 15 percent in Ohio, well that's a huge, huge difference, because you know that Obama is going to get 90 percent of those voters," Carney explained. "You need to adjust your tactics, you need to turn more people out. ... That's where all this fancy data is supposed to help."
But as the Republican Party looks to patch itself back together going into the 2014 midterm elections, Carney cautioned against an overemphasis on data and technology.
"The tools themselves don't help you if you don't have the basic fundamental parts of a campaign," he said. "The messenger and the message moves voters. There is a lot you can do technologically — there are a lot of tactics — but in the end, the candidate is still what drives the message."
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