Another Perspective

The One Scary Thing About the GOP’s Tech Deficiency

The other side not only has data whizzes but the wherewithal to manipulate voters.

By 2.11.13

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There has been a considerable amount of chatter over the past three months about the GOP’s challenges and travails. Much of that has focused on the perceived deficiency in the party’s technical capability; some written by people with very little technology experience at all outside of booting their computer.

So let me preface this by telling you three things about me. First, I have been building and repairing PCs for almost thirty years. I got my start in technology by jamming RAM chips into motherboards as a teen and built every computer I owned from scratch for almost twenty years. I have been doing tech since long before tech was cool.

Second, I started in politics working for the New Mexico GOP. I cut my teeth in political campaigns at all levels by volunteering to do grunt work and climbed the ladder.

Finally, I was the eCampaign Director for George W. Bush’s re-election and subsequently the RNC’s first eCampaign Director under Chairman Ken Mehlman -- the last Chairman to fully appreciate the need to invest heavily in tech.

I have read the near-daily diatribes decrying our lack of technologists and hand wringing over our inability to recruit Silicon Valley talent to our team.

As a digital strategist and party activist, as someone who has been involved in the field of digital politics since before people even knew that was a thing, I have no concerns about our ability to catch up on tech, on data, or on talented programmers. I do, however, have a fear about the GOP that leaves me gravely concerned.

For the last ten years, and even in the wake of Obama’s election, I have heard countless members of the establishment consultant class say, “but nobody has won because of the Internet.”

In the case of Obama, that’s certainly true. Obama did not win on Internet technology. Obama won on something much larger, much more sophisticated, and much more frightening. 

Some will tell you that Obama won on data. This, they claim, is the insurmountable lead the left has. I heard the same thing about data between 1994 and 2000 when the RNC invested heavily in a nationwide voter file with deep profiles of every registered American voter. The Democrats, we were told, could never catch up to the RNC data operation.

Data, and the ability to catch up on data, is not at issue. Significant investment in database technology, consumer data, and polling can reverse that trend. Paying top dollar for people is how you recruit the best talent. More than a few companies have found they could take talent from their competitors by offering a sweeter pie.

When the party makes data and technology a priority, and spends appropriately, it can and will catch up. That needs to happen sooner than later, to be sure. But tech, data, and developers are not an insurmountable advantage, nor are they the sole purview of either party. They are a prioritization problem.

That said, when tech becomes a priority, and the GOP spends big to catch up, the infrastructure we build must allow every state party, every campaign, and every cause to access and share that data. An open platform will be critical to the party’s success. That presents challenge number one.

The GOP needs fewer proprietary solutions and more sharing. The party must break the habit of rewarding sole-source contracts for privately owned technology platforms and adopt an open-source approach. 

Todd Herman (one of my successor’s at the RNC) was headed in this direction -- providing open APIs to RNC data and the ability to develop applications for the RNC platform. That project was shut down. It was a tragic miscalculation, but can be corrected.

More important than the open platform, however, is the second, and the much more daunting challenge the GOP faces.

The GOP did extensive research in the last decade to identify characteristics across voting blocs that would indicate a propensity to vote Republican. The practice, popularly known as microtargeting, assumes that people with similar patterns of consumer behavior or attitudes will vote in similar ways. 

In other words, if people who drive Nissans, people who drink Evian, and people who watch Real Housewives of Wherever-they-are-this-week all tend to vote heavily for Democrats, then a voter whose profile indicates they do all of those is most likely a safe vote for the left.

The Republicans did groundbreaking work in this area and the Democrats invested heavily to catch up.

Now, much has been written about Obama’s data nerds, and I suspect that comes from the nerds themselves tooting their own horn. It’s a common problem with people involved in successful campaigns. It’s also why I tend to look for the casual mentions of things that don’t get wide coverage to identify where the real win happened.

In the case of Obama, the frightening advantage the left has is in a less touted entity known as the Analyst Institute (AI) and a consortium of behavioral scientists or COBS. The combination should be truly terrifying for anyone on the right.

To sum it up briefly, the AI and COBS combine to create an academic approach to data that the right truly doesn’t have and may well have difficulty matching. The AI works with many left-leaning groups on an institutional level to test messaging components to see what moves people. In many ways it is a matter of simple multivariate testing to identify messages that move people -- present a number of different versions to subsets of your list and see which performs best. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Where the AI becomes terrifying is when you mix it with COBS. COBS, for its part, is a collective of behavioral scientists from across academia who specialize in a much more advanced form of microtargeting. These are people concerned not only with your characteristics and voting behavior, but how they can manipulate that behavior. They’ve united to form a behavioral brain trust for the left.

It’s one thing to know that someone is a likely voter and test messages to see what moves them. That would represent the intersection of the AI and traditional microtargeting. You’re just trying to trigger the characteristic that would cause them to act on a latent behavior to which they are already inclined.

When behavioral psychologists, behavioral economists, and behavioral political theorists unite to identify ways of shaping behavior, you start to see possibilities the best propaganda machines in history could not have imagined.

During World War I and World War II nations were experimenting with art, songs, movies, books, and messages that could elicit a patriotic response. They were so effective that this country effectively prohibited the government from investing in the practice.

Now consider the possibility of doing the same level of experimentation with triggered emotional response but you have data telling you what music the audience consumes, the movies they watch, the TV shows they sit still for, and even the food and drinks they buy. 

For the academics part, it’s the perfect situation. The Stanford Prisoner Experiment requires disclosure of testing parameters to subjects of experimentation. Political communication has no such restriction. If you want to get field knowledge of how to bend, fold, and twist voter behavior -- without having to tell voters they’re being manipulated -- who wouldn’t sign up?

That simple, frightening fact is why I, a dedicated technologist, have no fear about the GOP’s deficiency in technology, but instead stay awake at night terrified by our lack of access to the academics studying these fields.

Our challenge is not in data or technologists. Our challenge is competing in the realm of academic investigation and the brainpower represented by professors with tenure who do nothing but come up with ideas to explore. Now they have access to a free, unrestricted laboratory to test their theories, and a party willing to foot the bill. It is a perfect storm from which the GOP may truly be unable to escape.

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About the Author

Michael Turk is President of Opinion Mover Strategies, a communications consulting company. He was the eCampaign Director for Bush-Cheney ’04 and the first eCampaign Director for the Republican National Committee.