A year removed from promising an overhauled voter-turnout program to rival President Obama's groundbreaking campaigns, the Republican National Committee is pointing to the party's performance in a contested special House election in Florida as proof that it has made significant progress.
Of course, it's typical for a national party committee to attribute victory in a closely watched campaign to its ground game. The RNC did just that in 2012 after Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker won a hard-fought recall campaign, saying that the sophisticated voter targeting operation it employed in that race would serve as a model for the program it would run in the presidential contest later that year.
But the RNC's capability to collect and harness data to successfully turn out voters was no match for the Obama campaign. So beginning in January 2013, the RNC invested millions of dollars to modernize its get-out-the-vote operation and deliver a product that can at least compete with, if not surpass, what the Democrats are capable of. Some Republican insiders remain skeptical that the committee will deliver.
But the RNC says its digital team is making headway, as proven by what the committee accomplished on the ground -- and online -- in Florida's St. Petersburg-area 13th district, where on Tuesday Republican David Jolly narrowly defeated Democrat Alex Sink. RNC officials said the party was still analyzing the results, but they pointed to a handful of new data gathering and analysis capabilities the party now possesses that they believe made a difference:
• Canvassing app: The RNC has developed multiple smartphone and tablet apps for field staff to use to input data about prospective voters. The data is uploaded to the RNC’s main database in real time and is immediately available to the committee, the campaign and approved vendors, allowing them to make quick decisions on how to apply resources and whether to make strategic adjustments.
• Application programming interface: This is the fancy term the RNC is using to describe how it shares voter data with campaigns and approved vendors — and vice versa. Previously, a campaign, its consultants and the committee might be working off three sets of data. Now each entity can share and synthesize its data through the interface, increasing its accuracy and ensuring that the RNC, the candidate’s campaign team and outside strategists are making decisions based on the same voter information.
• The email list: For the first time, the RNC was able to synthesize its list of email contacts with its voter file. It sounds simple, but an inability to do this previously had significantly reduced the number of prospective voters the committee was able to contact.
• Voter scoring: The more a party knows about prospective voters, the more efficient and effective its voter targeting. The RNC used to rank voters on a simple one-to-five scale, one being the least likely to vote for the Republican candidate, five being the most likely. The committee now ranks prospective voters on a complex scale of one to 100, with each data point representing a piece of information about a voter that helps determine how best to talk to him or her and motivate him or her to vote.
• Dashboard: For the first time, all of the data gathered by the RNC minute to minute was available to view on-demand via computer. Neither the campaign, the National Republican Congressional Committee nor any other approved entity had to request reports from the RNC or worry that the information might be outdated by the time they got them.
The committee has been testing components of the new operation as they come online. Some elements were available for November's New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races; additional tools were put to work in February in a San Diego mayoral campaign, which the Republicans won.
This process of building and refinement is due to last well beyond the 2014 and 2016 elections, although RNC officials expect the basic architecture of the program to be available for Republican candidates running for House and Senate this year. So far, count as a fan at least one Republican strategist who was intimately involved in Tuesday's Florida 13th special election.
“We were getting data and reports back in real time … and were able to make real time adjustments virtually every day,” the GOP strategist said. “From my vantage point, we were playing the Democrats’ game.”