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Does the GOP need to embrace collectivism (on voter databases)?

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Sean Higgins

That’s the argument buried inside this Politico story by Steve Friess, “GOP digital divide may take years to bridge.” The article notes that the Republican Party lead the race in get-out-the-vote technology as recently as 2004 but has fallen far behind the Democrats since then. Part of the problem? The national GOP leadership jealously guards its database while Democrats make theirs — called the Voter Activation Network — open to anybody down the ticket.

The VAN grew out of Democratic desperation. In 2001, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) assigned staffer Mark Sullivan to figure out a way for all Hawkeye Democrats to share voter information. Harkin and Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack were both running for reelection in 2002. Sullivan created the VAN for Iowa and it helped candidates survive what was otherwise a brutal Republican wave year.

By 2006, Sullivan had created VANs for 25 state parties, and when Dean took over the party he decided the system needed to be unified as the cornerstone of his famed “50 state strategy.”

The GOP, by contrast, has no such system, an oversight that leads to the loss of information that could be valuable to others both in real time as well as from one election cycle to the next. If, for instance, a statehouse candidate has learned that a voter’s particular worry is health care, that would also be useful for a congressional candidate to know in deciding what campaign literature to send to that home. Or if a volunteer from one GOP campaign has already ferried a voter to the polls on Election Day, it’s best for other candidates in the vicinity to know, so as to not bother calling or visiting that person.

“We absolutely need a centralized database to record voter history, online and offline interactions and add in demographic data that we can learn from and social data we can learn from to get a full picture of our customers,” Pasi said.

Part of the VAN’s success comes from party discipline. Last summer, for instance, when the Clark County Democratic Party in Nevada briefly decided it wanted to try a different software vendor, it was quickly lashed back in line by DNC higher-ups who shuddered at the prospect that down-ballot candidates in Las Vegas, with 70 percent of the population in that crucial swing state, wouldn’t be contributing to the system.

That’s a level of commitment to a top-down approach that will be difficult for Priebus to attain for a party fundamentally opposed to forced collaboration.

“The nature of conservatism is about individual free-market thinking and competition and not about looking to create a strong collective for the betterment of society,” said Harris, who also managed the digital efforts for Newt Gingrich, Allen West and Linda McMahon in 2012. “It’s almost a socialist premise. But Republicans need to adopt that collective mind-set because we are going up against a data giant and a data giant that is built by really, really smart tech geeks that Republicans simply don’t have.”

Friess notes the epic failure of the Romney campaign’s get out the vote database but argues it may not have helped that even if it did work as intended:

There were some efforts in 2012 to replicate elements of the Democrats’ apparatus, but they were short-lived, glitchy or parochial. Romney, for instance, tried to create an Election Day database program called ORCA to keep track of who had made it to the polls and who needed prodding. It was a spectacular flop; volunteers weren’t properly trained and the bug-riddled system crashed at crucial moments.

Yet even if ORCA had functioned perfectly, its information would have been available solely to Romney’s campaign. Thousands of Romney-supporting volunteers and staffers for candidates elsewhere on the ballot could have helped and might have avoided redundant voter-outreach efforts were they included.

“As far as we know, they have no shared system that’s used up and down the ballot,” said Jim St. George, managing partner for VAN, which merged with the Democratic campaign software company NGP in 2010.

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