The Republican Party aims to build a digital operation that surpasses the one President Obama built for the 2012 campaign. Time, and two upcoming elections, will show whether the GOP succeeds.
The effort, begun this summer, is largely the responsibility of 33-year-old former Facebook engineer Andy Barkett, the Republican National Committee's chief technology officer. Barkett's plan is to refine and advance the innovative technology harnessed by Obama's campaign organization to identify and turn out voters.
But instead of reserving this digital network for a single presidential candidate, the RNC plans to share it with any Republican running for any office anywhere in the country.
"We're going to do something even harder than what [Obama] did. Replicating what they did isn't that hard," Barkett told the Washington Examiner.
Barkett previewed his strategy for reporters in Boston during the GOP's summer meeting and in a more in-depth interview with the Examiner in Washington. He said he wants to have the technology ready for testing in the 2014 mid-term elections and fully operational by 2016 for the party's presidential nominee, down-ticket candidates and GOP-affiliated groups.
Barkett's hiring, and mission, are part of the RNC's efforts to upgrade its voter targeting and mobilization operations, an overhaul ordered by GOP Chairman Reince Priebus after the party's disastrous showing in the 2012 elections. There are a number of reasons Obama beat Republican Mitt Romney, but there is broad agreement that Obama's superior digital operation -- and Romney's inability to match it -- gave Obama a substantial edge.
Taking a page from Obama's playbook, the GOP will abandon a voter targeting operation that relies on files that simply identify individual voters and their voting history. The new system will focus more broadly on people, even those who never voted, to identify likely voters, expand the universe of potential voters and provide a more accurate measure of the Republican Party's strength.
But hurdles abound for Barkett, who must build a digital data infrastructure virtually from scratch. Among them is that an outside group, Data Trust, and not the party will manage what Barkett considers to be one of the RNC's key improvements over Obama's 2012 operation: The ability to securely share data with GOP allies, who in turn will share information they've gathered with the RNC to further strengthen the network.
The system Barkett's building is expected to mine relevant information about potential voters through publicly available social networks like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter and then weave that data into an accurate, accessible and regularly updated file that can be shared. Some of the data collected will be very basic, like whether the potential voters prefers to communicate by smartphone or laptop email.
Barkett's system will include two innovations. One would collect information from television set-top boxes and show a campaign not only individual viewing habits but also whether the voter saw a specific political ad.
The second innovation would collect data from social networks about targeted demographic groups and allow a campaign to deliver customized digital ads to as few as a dozen or so voters.
Barkett will hire a few dozen "data scientists" and digital advertising experts -- from college Republican groups, Wall Street and other GOP-friendly venues -- to build the system. He expects the RNC to train thousands of others from across the country to use the technology.
"I'm worried, I'll be honest with you, that we're a little further behind on the data science part. It's going to take us longer to catch up there," Barkett said. "We're going to have to find, and in some cases train, a whole generation of those data science guys. There are some in the Republican ecosystem, but there aren't enough."'
Barkett expects to complete several "voter relationship management tools" by year's end. The system will be upgraded regularly just like any social network or smart phone app.
Barkett's goal is to hand off to the GOP's 2016 presidential candidate a digital operation that surpasses the one that helped re-elect Obama in 2012.
"We're going to have enough done, so that it's better than any of the other tools that are available to them, by the end of this year," Barkett said. "By 2016 we'll probably be ahead of where the Democrats are."