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Meet the GOP's digital media experts who are disrupting the party's campaign strategies

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Opinion,Ron Arnold,Columnists,Republican Party,Campaigns,Social Media,Magazine,Internet

A month ago, House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., announced the new website of House Republicans at GOP.gov. Its design is modern, clean and responsive, it's accessible on any device, has easily searchable legislative data (including voting history), makes direct connection to Republican representatives through social media, and gives real-time information from the House floor.

That's remarkable for the attention it didn't get. Since the 2012 Romney crash-and-burn at the hands of President Obama's geek-driven re-election campaign, common wisdom has it that Republicans are digital Neanderthals counting on their fingers instead of their computers.

Capitol Hill's best kept secret seems to be that Republicans are light years ahead of Democrats in digital-assisted government - posting all bills online three days before a vote, along with versions of bills to be considered and House committee documents (votes, bills, meeting notices, witness testimony, and more). There's even a “Citizen Cosponsors” feature enabling people to track legislation of interest at cosponsor.gov. Democrats are behind the curve on most of that.

The new GOP.gov website was created by Washington-based Engage LLC, the same people who published the outstanding visual tour through the 2012 Obama For America campaign, “Inside the Cave,” described in this space last week.

I found out about the GOP.gov site by calling Engage to ask how they got the inside information for the Cave expose and spoke to their top leadership, president and co-founder Patrick Ruffini and senior vice president Nick Schaper. Ruffini is a seasoned Republican political strategist and Schaper was the first-ever director of digital media for the House Speaker.

Their firm astonishingly picked the Cave details out of public records and a mountain of web postings with no spies or mind-readers. Engage’s slide show was meant as a revelation for Republican campaigners, not a bouquet for Obama, but it’s so even-handed you could read it either way.

Engage’s website describes the firm as “a digital agency with a purpose” and displays a fascinating "What We Do" statement: “We use technology and disruptive thinking to solve big problems for innovators worldwide.” How can you not want your thinking disrupted for an hour by the leaders of an outfit like that?

(Don’t get that wrong: “Disruptive thinking” is used in business and technology literature to describe innovations that improve a product or service in ways that the market does not expect.)

“Republicans are much further ahead digitally than people think,” said Schaper, pointing out the new GOP.gov website by Engage. And Engage is not alone: those other Republican web resources, including the “Citizen Cosponsors” feature, were the work of a stable of digital agencies out to bring constituents into the governing process as individuals.

But Romney still got trounced by Obama’s Cave Dwellers using Big Data, hipster tech, and cool new apps. What about that for the next political battle?

“Both sides agree that 2012 was a big step forward for integrating digital with the rest of the campaign. Things have changed a lot since 2012: We can see that the backbone of the campaign itself is moving online,” Ruffini said, “but some things haven’t changed at all. The data is only as good as the people and the campaign operation collecting it.

“Door knocks are still the gold standard for reaching voters. How can social media be used to provide a similar experience online? You can match Facebook data and 'likes' with the old standbys - voter files, census data, contributor lists, canvassing results - to get millions of voters in our data platform where analytics can show us what's happening in real time.”

Is Facebook any good for gauging public opinion or how your candidate is doing?

“We want to understand and model the relationship between online conversation and public opinion, but this hasn’t been done very well – yet. Large-scale analytics and predictive modeling can also help predict how specific groups are moving in real time, with more precision than a traditional poll.”

That’s amazing, but it doesn’t sound like more data and more analytics tells you which campaign tools to use.

“If you mean knowing what methods work, like whether to run TV ads or running a social media campaign, you have to test. And then re-test. You can’t go into it thinking you already know the answer. You need to be willing to go where the data tells you to.”

To hear political experts honoring facts and reality in election campaigns is a distinct pleasure. Thank you for disrupting our thinking, Patrick Ruffini and Nick Schaper.

RON ARNOLD, a Washington Examiner columnist, is executive vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise.
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Ron Arnold

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The Washington Examiner