Republican ‘Start-Up’ Targets Voters, Donors — and Democrats

Photograph by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Delegates at the Republican National Convention in Tampa on Aug. 28, 2012.

In an office with walls covered by dry erase boards, one phrase in bold red block letters stands out above the multi-colored scribbled notes, ideas and equations: “Does this drive data & dollars?”

That’s the question each of the 40-plus employees working inside the Republican National Committee’s Capitol Hill-based combined data and digital operation is supposed to be asking themselves every day they come to work.

(See the report at Bloomberg TV.)

It’s a question born from many others, raised by just about every major donor and official in the party, regarding the failures of the GOP’s operation that had been so thoroughly exposed by President Barack Obama’s 2012 operation.

Para Bellum Labs was created to answer the questions, which were outlined in somewhat scathing detail in the RNC’s 100-page “Growth and Opportunity Project” released in March 2013.

Designed as a Silicon Valley-esque incubator inside the RNC, offices in Washington and San Mateo, California, are home to what Republican officials hope can become a data hub for the party for years to come. It is a place where a national voter file that once set the political standard can be grown, enhanced and tapped into by in-house engineering and data analytics talent, as well as by aligned campaigns, party organizations and outside groups.

Led by Chuck DeFeo, the head of President George W. Bush’s 2004 digital campaign operation, and operating with about $17 million, the team has designs of matching, and then advancing, the Obama team’s levels of success in data mining and donor targeting.

“This is a strategic moment,” DeFeo said in an interview, citing Democrats that are operating this cycle without the full Obama campaign machine leading the way. “When you no longer have the imperative of getting an incumbent president reelected — you have a little bit of a brain drain and less sense of urgency.”

Tools like “RNC Dynamo,” “RNC Foresight” and “RNC Beacon” are being built, enhanced and rebuilt again as the RNC attempts to do something with little precedent: combining the data and digital operations of a campaign organization inside the party apparatus with no set expiration date.

“It’s not only winning in 2014, but the infrastructure we need to win in 2016,” DeFeo said.

Democrats involved with Obama’s operation point to the potential constraints of operating inside a party committee, where the agility needed to operate and change directions could be restricted by party officials — something the independent tech operation inside the Chicago headquarters didn’t have to contend with.

Other Obama vets have been quick to point out that some of the technology used was, in fact, created by the Democrats DeFeo and his team are trying to beat.

Democrats have had some tech fun at Para Bellum’s expense as well, in the form of a mocking (yet very similar) Website that hit the internet shortly after the team’s official launch in February.

For Azarias Reda, the upside of coming in on the ground floor of the RNC’s initiative far outweighed the potential drawbacks when he decided in January to leave his Austin-Texas-based start-up, Meritful, to become the RNC’s chief data officer. The pitch that brought him aboard, said Reda, who holds a PhD in computer science engineering, is the same one he doles out to the engineering students he has recruited on the campuses of schools including Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and the University of California, Berkeley.

“You can go build a cool app or a cool website,” Reda said he tells the students. “Or you can help elect the next president of the United States.”

With engineering recruits from those schools, as well as new hires from tech companies such as Facebook, Oracle and Microsoft, Reda and DeFeo say the talent gap between Democrats and Republicans has narrowed. That should spark the narrowing of the overall gap — something officials say now-Rep. David Jolly’s March special election victory helped show. Of course, as with most election victories, the RNC isn’t the only group taking some form of credit for Jolly’s win.

But regardless of Para Bellum’s specific effect on the election, there was clear benefit in the opportunity to put their new tools to the test, Reda said. DeFeo called the race “a very, very successful field test for us.”

At the heart of the new voter scoring and relationship management systems, predictive analytics and expanded voter file sits the data — gathered from social media, polling, the party’s own Website and fundraising e-mails and, from outside vendors, specifics on consumer purchases and activities.

But getting the data hasn’t necessarily been the problem for RNC, which collects on its own and holds a series of data sharing agreements with state parties and a third party vendor, Data Trust. What the Obama campaign mastered was the ability to seamlessly transfer their world-class data collection into the models, programs and apps that provided as close to 360 degree view of voters and donors as possible.

For the RNC, the idea is to match that, and then expand on it, creating an infrastructure through a technology platform that opens the door for any Republican candidate, aligned group or party committee to utilize the internal data cache or the different apps created out of it.

“What we’re doing now is building out the infrastructure to give access to candidates across the board come the fall,” Reda said.

Matching and bettering the tech savvy of the Democratic Party will be no small feat — Democrats and aligned groups have made clear that they have no intention slowing down, even without the Obama machine leading the way.

The Democratic National Committee launched its own internal data and digital arm in February, called Project Ivy, which officials say houses the underlying codebase, voter data and supporter models that powered the Obama campaign.

“We’re building on a foundation of experimentation, analysis, and thought leadership that stretches back a decade to develop tools and technology to empower state parties, campaigns, organizers, and voters,” DNC Digital Director Matt Compton and DNC Technology Director Andrew Brown said in February blog post.

For DeFeo and his team, it’s that question on the wall that will ultimately decide who is better come November. The organization that collects more data on voters and more dollars from donors will have the upper hand in the fight. And in this fight, there’s always a clear winner and loser.

“We are going to find out how successful we really are on Election Day,” DeFeo said.

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