Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has set an ambitious goal for his reelection campaign: to build the most sophisticated Republican digital and data operation to date.
The Kentucky Republican, known more as tactician than technologist, is making a major investment in technology infrastructure in hopes that a treasure trove of real-time data about the electorate will help guide him to a sixth term.
“We’re making a commitment that we’re going to be on the cutting edge of both digital outreach and data collection and analysis,” said Jesse Benton, McConnell’s campaign manager. “We’re committed to setting the gold standard.”
The McConnell operation, which is sitting on $8.6 million and likely to be at least one of the best-funded, if not the best-funded, campaigns in the nation next year, will be a crucial test case for Republicans who are desperate to close the technological divide that Democrats, led by President Obama’s political apparatus, have opened up.
The recent Republican Party “autopsy” of its shortcomings listed high-quality data collection and deployment as among the GOP's greatest weaknesses. The McConnell team sees itself as a pilot program to fix the problem, road-testing new methods that, if successful, could be adopted more broadly by other Republican campaigns.
McConnell, 71, still doesn’t have any credible opposition, either a tea-party insurgent from the right or a prominent Democratic challenger. But his woeful approval ratings have Democrats believing they could still knock him out.
So 18 months before the 2014 election, the McConnell campaign is busy building dozens of personalized experiences for its website visitors. Staffers are measuring Kentucky voters’ emotional state in real time. And, perhaps most important, they are matching up the Kentucky state voter file with people’s digital presences, so the campaign can track and target individual voters based on what they’re saying online.
Cyrus Krohn, one of the campaign’s data consultants, said it has already matched the voting records of close to 40 percent of Kentuckians – more than 1 million voters – with their online persona.
“That universe is large enough to model all kinds of things predictively,” said Krohn, who has split his career between the tech sector, at Microsoft and Yahoo, and the political world, where he once worked for the Republican National Committee. His latest venture is Crowdverb, a company he founded last year to perform live data-scrapping of what people are saying and how they are feeling online about a given topic (such as McConnell), working with data partner BehaviorMatrix. Krohn calls it “extracting human emotion in real time.”
Another McConnell consultant, Vincent Harris, who spearheaded online operations for the 2012 presidential campaigns of Rick Perry and then Newt Gingrich, said McConnell has promised to outspend either of those presidential-level efforts.
“They’re investing millions of dollars," Harris said. "It is a lot of money.”
The McConnell campaign’s first-quarter spending report doesn’t show that level of investment, and Benton declined to comment on an exact digital and data budget. (Engage, another digital company, was also used by the McConnell campaign last quarter, but it and the campaign have since parted ways. Patrick Ruffini, president of Engage, did not return a call for comment.)
Democrats are dubious that McConnell or the GOP can close the technology gap in one fell swoop. Jeremy Bird, the national field director for Obama’s reelection campaign and now a partner at 270 Strategies, said many political campaigns end up chasing “vanity metrics” by purchasing “off-the-shelf vendor tools that any corporation or any candidate could buy.”
“So much of this stuff is overblown,” Bird said. “The question is, is your online presence connected to your off-line get-out-the-vote operation in a meaningful way so you can take this operation that’s online and turn it into voters?’”
Benton, who previously ran Ron Paul’s presidential campaign, said the McConnell campaign knows those are the pitfalls. “You can have all the data in the world and if you’re not integrating into the right outputs, it’s not going to do the job you’re going to need it to do,” he said.
For now, the campaign is engaged in the same kind of rigorous trial-and-error testing of digital schemes that the Obama campaign helped pioneer, from measuring effectiveness of e-mail subject lines to the color palette and size of donation buttons.
“Does a green donation button work better than the red?” Harris asked. “There’s a lot of testing going on, which is something this campaign respects and values—and most campaigns don’t.”
The language in a recent TV ad questioning “how dirty will Obama’s allies get” in attacking McConnell was actually informed by the data-scrapping from Crowdverb, Benton said. The original script, as drafted, questioned “how low” the Democrats would go.
“We found that, particularly a female audience [ages] 35-55, that they responded to ‘dirty’ a lot better than ‘low,’’ Benton said. “So we made that change.”
In addition, visitors to McConnell’s website get different experiences, depending on their previous activity on the site, Harris explained. If a person has donated after a guns-related e-mail, then McConnell’s stance on the Second Amendment is front and center, for instance. If they’ve been back repeatedly, but not donated yet, the donate button may begin to grow in size.
The campaign then analyzes all the various designs to see what was most effective. The goal is to turn curious Web visitors into supporters, supporters into donors, and donors into full-fledged activists.
But all of those elements need eyeballs, and Mitch McConnell is not the transcendent and motivating figure that Barack Obama was in 2007. So the campaign has made a big push to modernize his appeal.
The McConnell campaign recently produced a Harlem Shake video, has begun posting memes on its Facebook page (including this one, which stirred some controversy) and has hired video-producing wunderkind Lucas Baiano to make splashy YouTube clips (including this one, although there are some questions about whether the McConnell campaign has inflated its page views).
Harris, a Texas-based consultant, said he had high hopes the McConnell campaign will help the GOP catch up to Obama’s digital and data prowess.
“Is there a gap? Yes. Is the gap fixable? Yes,” he said. “The problem is, Republicans look to themselves to find the problem. Republicans look inside the Beltway, and that has to stop.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Lucas Baiano.
This article appears in the April 30, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.