Policy: Technology

What have Republicans got against winning? Lessons learned from Colorado and the Obama campaign

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Opinion,Ron Arnold,Columnists,Republican Party,2016 Elections,Campaigns,Technology,Social Media,Data Mining,Magazine

“Infrastructure,” said Rob Witwer, co-author of The Blueprint: How the Democrats won Colorado -- and Why Republicans EVERYWHERE Should Care.

Infrastructure is the secret that Republicans need to use in order to win, and he told me all about it.

Hang on tight, because asking Witwer about politics is like Capt. James T. Kirk asking Scotty for warp speed in a "Star Trek" movie.

“Today’s politics depends on blocking and tackling, like football,” Witwer told me — “get your voters to the polls through anything the other team can throw at you and make enough touchdowns — cast enough votes — to win the game.

“Infrastructure,” Witwer explained, “is your boots-on-the-ground team, your ground-game playbook, and your technology.” Translated, that’s old-fashioned door-to-door canvassers, voter registration sites, and free rides to the polling place, all boosted by a playbook that looks like a do-or-die video game in a supercomputer.

It’s the supercomputer playbook the Republicans are missing.

Karl Rove's 2004 cutting-edge presidential campaign that enabled George W. Bush to mop the floor with John Kerry used public and commercial data, and enhanced it with their own work as well,” said Witwer. “Rove's spectacular Ohio ground game baffled the Democrats who thought they owned that key state.”

A lot changed in the four years leading up to 2008, particularly social media, which exploded as a source of voter information. Democrats learned fast, especially in the very red state of Colorado, and the fast learners were three very liberal, very rich men and a similarly situated woman -- Jared Polis, Rutt Bridges, Tim Gill, and Pat Stryker.

This “Gang of Four” figured out a better ground game for the 2008 election: They worked through independent groups, not through the Democratic Party structure. They invited every liberal group with a mailing list in the state to get political, used social media to identify and activate voters, spent millions on mobilization and media messages, and won.

After election night, 2008, Colorado was a shocking shade of blue. Democrats, not Republicans, controlled the governor's mansion, both U.S. Senate seats, five of seven House seats, and both chambers of the Colorado state legislature.

The Democratic ground game looked like this: Canvassers went door-to-door with cell phone devices and got answers to preference questionnaires on the spot, registered voters on the spot, transmitted the data to a supercomputer that trolled Facebook for better personal understanding, which they used in voter activation, either by phone or by going back for face-to-face communication about the voters' pet issues, chatting like they were old friends, then arranged for the get-out-the-vote crew to haul voters who needed it to the polls.

The Republicans used TV ads and the usual ground game. Lesson: Don’t fight the last war.

Witwer’s investigative skills gave readers those inside details from 2008 — most of them straight from insiders who wanted to brag — so the blueprint that worked in Colorado is available to all Republicans with the vision and brains to draw a better blueprint. Which will be essential in the coming midterm elections.

Things have changed again. Come up to 2012 and the contest between President Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Enter Obama for America's Chicago headquarters and find The Cave, nickname of a large open room where 300 technology geeks focused on digital communications, technology development and analytics, using Big Data to devastate the Romney campaign.

Some of those words weren’t even in the average Romney staffer’s vocabulary. Obama’s campaign didn’t hire the typical political staffer. They went directly to Silicon Valley and to data analysts in the Fortune 500 and academia. One used to work at Pixar. Another was a high-energy particle physicist.

“Cave geeks” sized up 2012's vitals. First came fundraising. Do it online. They raised $690 million from 4.4 million online donors. To do it they had to test everything, subject lines of emails, a dozen or more plea messages per “ask,” and other things -- instantly.

Then came polling, the navigation system of election campaigns: one-third of the electorate lives in a cell-phone-only household. Traditional polling can’t deal with that. They had to turn to analytics, computer modeling of high sophistication. Using dynamic models integrated with voter contact data, Obama’s analytics team ran 66,000 simulations each night to project who was winning every battleground state. They gave intelligent responses in real time.

You get the picture. This is a day’s work to Democrats. To Republicans, it’s science fiction.

How do I know all this? The Washington-based digital agency called Engage published it in a document titled “Inside the Cave” with all those details and a lot more — in January of last year. It’s been online ever since, waiting for a Republican to read it.

An insider told me that a comparable firm was rejected by the Republican National Committee when it offered similar services to the Romney campaign.

It makes me wonder, what have Republicans got against winning?

CORRECTION: The firm that published "Inside the Cave" is called Engage, and it is based in Washington. Its name and its base of operations were incorrect in an earlier version of this column. The Washington Examiner regrets the error. This column was originally published at 6:46 p.m. April 29 and was updated at 7:49 p.m.

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