Policy: Technology

Charlie Spiering: Republicans losing the tech wars

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Opinion,Charlie Spiering,Columnists,Campaign 2012,Politics Digest,Republican Party,Technology

"In the digital space, we don't want just to keep up. We want to seize the lead," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus explained to Republicans during their winter meeting earlier this month.

Priebus' comments echo the frustrations of many Republican technology experts, tired of watching their party lag behind their Democratic rivals. But they don't necessarily signal that needed changes are on the way.

After Obama won in 2008, Republicans invested in social media, realizing they had no serious presence on Twitter or Facebook. By election 2010, these investments paid off, as activists proudly flexed their social media muscles. Their message was clear, and their supporters were fired up for victory.

And that's all wonderful, but the person with the most Twitter followers or Facebook "likes" doesn't necessarily win the election. In 2012, Obama outclassed Republicans in the tech sphere because his campaign had something less visible than social media -- a robust culture of technology.

Technology is not a "secret sauce" or a computer gimmick -- some app that magically makes you win. Technology is nothing but accomplishing goals with fewer people faster. The Obama campaign had a key grasp of that concept -- it was baked into the organizational culture from the very beginning.

Ever since Obama challenged Hillary Clinton's campaign in the 2008 Democratic primary, his campaign had been forced to think of cheaper and more efficient ways to organize people and move voters and donors. His camp had a group of inspired young supporters and developers eager to join the cause. By 2012, the Obama campaign was innovating in ways Republicans could not, thanks to its institutional knowledge of its supporters.

Jon Henke, a former new media director for the Republican Communications Office, explains that Republicans and Democrats are in different stages in developing their campaign infrastructure.

"The Right has a more established movement and infrastructure and has been trying to repurpose it for modern opportunities," he explains. "The Left was rebuilding from the ground up, and their major donors and activists wanted to do new, different things."

When I asked one congressional technology staffer what he would do if he was hired by the RNC, he answered simply, "Fire everybody." The existing culture, he explained, only ensures that the results will be the same. "Would you lose some institutional memory?" he asked. "Yeah, but you kind of want to forget all those memories."

Technology strategist Allen Fuller of Flat Creek Digital said the GOP is in the same boat as many organizations when it comes to technology. "Where we seem to fall short is when decision makers are not familiar with technology," he said. "We struggle with experimenting and being willing to take risks."

Because the party itself has failed to innovate, Republicans have instead placed their hopes in hiring the best vendors. This has at times exacerbated the problem, as the Romney campaign's experience with the ORCA system demonstrates. Romney's campaign knew the importance of technology, but it outsourced the job (of course) and frequently mismanaged its resources. As one former staffer put it to me on condition of anonymity, "They wasted so much money you would not believe."

These shortcomings demonstrate that it's not always the top developer in the business that can deliver the best solution for an organization like a political campaign. A vendor's fundamental goal is to make money. A campaign staffer's goal is to win.

Charlie Spiering (cspiering@washington examiner.com) is an opinion staff writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @charliespiering.

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