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Inside the Republican plan to catch up to Democrats on the internet

February 19, 2014, at 6:37 PM
 

In a new episode of Political Wire's podcast, we spoke to Republican digital strategist Patrick Ruffini about how political campaigns present and future will change the way they use technology and data to better reach voters, winning their support and turning them out.

Here are five takeaways:

1. Campaigning is moving toward a digital era in which data will help campaigns reach the right voters more efficiently: Traditionally, campaigns defined universes of potential voters, and distinguished between winnable votes and non-winnable votes in a very binary way. "Either you’re in it or you’re outside it," Ruffini said. The explosion of data and analytics from social media and other online platforms is helping change that paradigm. Campaigns can now use these data to define in more probabilistic terms how persuadable voters are and what platforms and messages to use to target them. At the same time, these techniques aren't totally new. Even the 2004 Bush campaign used micro-targeting to an extent, and the Obama campaign managed to scale up their use significantly, especially in 2012. Said Ruffini: "What you see is these things that were at the fringe of campaigns all of a sudden becoming more and more prominent, more and more important, applied in new ways. And that in and of itself generates these tremendous results."

2. Democrats won the digital war in 2012, but Republicans are headed in the right direction: The Obama campaign outmuscled the Romney campaign in the digital realm, both in terms of the size of their email lists and online fundraising, and of how the campaigns used data and analytics to target voters more efficiently. Republicans have tried time and time again to boost their use of digital tactics. But a combination of the Republican National Committee's debt struggles after 2008 and its ongoing failure to build a permanent digital infrastructure have hampered the party's efforts: "What we’re seeing in general on the Republican side is lots of false starts, potentially, and not necessarily a lot of chance to institutionalize this digital culture." Republicans finally realize that they have to create that digital infrastructure. "I think Republicans are headed in the right direction," he said.

3. But it will take Republicans time — maybe not until 2016 or beyond: Even though Republicans have awoken to the reality that they have to address their digital deficits in more systematic ways, this renaissance won't happen overnight. Ruffini points to how long it took the Democrats to build up their own digital department: "It’s not like one day the Democrats decided to wave a magic wand and decide to do digital." Each campaign cycle that went by, they got better and better at it, he said. Republicans may not be able to make much progress in 2014, given that there are hundreds of campaigns that won't have the resources to support large data and analytics operations. "It’s a lot easier to do from a scale perspective at a national level, at a presidential campaign level," he said. 2016 will need to be a big year of progress for Republicans in the digital realm, he added.

4. This data-driven digital approach is both complex and far from perfect. But it's better than what campaigns used before. Campaigns won't be using data from one source by itself or only in one stage of the voter outreach and turnout process. "Probability is assigned to each element of the campaign to try to make campaigns smarter and actually makes them right more often than they’re wrong," he said. Even with that sophistication, these methods won't serve as campaign silver bullets. Said Ruffini: "I guess the point of analytics, the point of probability, is not that we’re going to get it right 100 percent of the time, it’s that we’re doing something that’s better than random [voter targeting]."

5. Don't forget about building lasting connections with voters: Figuring out how to target voters more efficiently is a different issue altogether from figuring out how to build a lasting connection with them. "You always have to ask, 'Wait a minute, did you actually create a lasting connection with that person?'" Ruffini said. "And I think campaigns in general feel that tension a lot." Digital campaigning methods like emails and Facebook posts carry the risk of helping in the short run but backfiring in the long run if they come off as gimmicky or manipulative in voters' minds. Ruffini noted that Obama campaign officials strongly emphasized that their outreach efforts didn't solely involve reaching as many persuadable voters as possible. Said Ruffini: "It goes back to this whole community organizing idea, about building these relationships with voters and supporters and recognizing that there really isn’t a difference between online and offline in that regard."

Listen to the entire interview here:

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