Mind the (Digital) Gap

National Journal
Steven Shepard
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Steven Shepard
Feb. 14, 2014, 6:46 a.m.

Re­pub­lic­ans have spent the past 15 months fig­ur­ing out how to close the di­git­al cam­paign gap with their Demo­crat­ic coun­ter­parts, and the RNC last week rolled out its most con­crete con­tri­bu­tion: A new, in-house tech and data star­tup it calls Para Bel­lum Labs. The RNC ef­fort moves the GOP closer to di­git­al par­ity with Demo­crats, but how quickly they can close that gap re­mains an open ques­tion.

— Para Bel­lum ““ which seeks to bring the RNC’s his­tor­ic­ally-re­spec­ted voter file in­to the 21st cen­tury in an ef­fort to bol­ster voter con­tacts from field work to tra­di­tion­al tar­get­ing ““ also rep­res­ents a real­iz­a­tion that tra­di­tion­al tele­vi­sion ad­vert­ising isn’t how the party and its can­did­ates are go­ing to reach a new gen­er­a­tion of voters by com­bin­ing a cre­at­ive team with data en­gin­eers fo­cused on in­nov­at­ive ap­proaches. “I reg­u­larly say in my present­a­tions is I be­lieve the most im­port­ant screen we’re go­ing to be com­mu­nic­at­ing on is the small one in their hands and not the large one in their liv­ing room,” RNC chief di­git­al of­ficer Chuck De­Feo told The Hot­line last week.

— The RNC ef­fort looks for­ward to 2016, when the party will at­tempt to take back the White House after eight years of Demo­crat­ic reign. And where­as Pres­id­ent Obama‘s cam­paign built a soph­ist­ic­ated di­git­al op­er­a­tion that over­whelmed the GOP, the RNC hopes its even­tu­al can­did­ate will in­her­it a team already in place. That will be par­tic­u­larly im­port­ant if Demo­crats nom­in­ate Hil­lary Clin­ton, who, as the over­whelm­ing fron­trun­ner, has years to build her cam­paign ap­par­at­us. “I think this is a very stra­tegic mo­ment,” De­Feo said. “When I look at the very tal­en­ted team on the Obama cam­paign side, a lot of them moved onto the private side. … They’re not de­vot­ing their time, their fo­cus on con­tinu­ing to build out what’s needed [for 2016].”

— De­Feo’s state­ment isn’t en­tirely true. Team Obama has gone private sec­tor, but they’re still in­volved in Demo­crat­ic cam­paigns ““ BlueLabs and Pre­ci­sion Strategies are two ex­amples. BlueLabs gets a lot of cred­it for Terry McAul­iffe‘s VA GOV win last year, and they’ll be in high de­mand in this year’s midterms.

Demo­crats are look­ing at their di­git­al edge as a sil­ver bul­let in the race for con­trol of the Sen­ate. But be­cause the tech­no­logy is chan­ging so quickly, the Demo­crat­ic ad­vant­age in 2008 and 2012 (and likely 2014) won’t ne­ces­sar­ily ex­ist in 2016 if the GOP’s be­lated ef­fort to close the gap is suc­cess­ful.

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