What it Really Means to ‘Close the GOP Tech Gap’

Two obstacles the Republican National Committee must overcome that it didn’t anticipate in its election post-mortem

120829 - Tampa, FL - Karl Rove being interviewed on the floor of the RNC.
©2012 Liz Lynch
May 3, 2013, 3:01 a.m.

Whomever the Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee taps to fill its top tech post has an un­en­vi­able job to do.

The race has come down to three people. They all work for big Sil­ic­on Val­ley com­pan­ies nom­in­ally, but all un­mis­tak­ably hail from the Wash­ing­ton es­tab­lish­ment. Face­book’s Katie Har­bath, who pre­vi­ously served as the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ori­al Com­mit­tee’s chief di­git­al strategist, is cur­rently in the lead. The re­main­ing two can­did­ates are Twit­ter’s Mindy Finn and Google’s Rob Sa­liter­man. Each of the lat­ter has worked for former Pres­id­ent George W. Bush at vari­ous points.

Who con­trols the data con­trols the can­did­ates; who con­trols the can­did­ates con­trols the party.

The win­ner of this con­test is go­ing to in­her­it some sticky chal­lenges. To de­scribe the prob­lem simply as a mat­ter of “clos­ing the tech gap” between Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans over­sim­pli­fies the tac­tic­al obstacles that stand in the RNC’s way. If the GOP really wants to catch up, it’ll have to settle two spe­cif­ic in­tern­al de­bates: one about data own­er­ship and an­oth­er about data per­mis­sions.

Here’s why data own­er­ship is a big deal. To para­phrase the geo­graph­er Halford Mac­kinder: Who con­trols the data con­trols the can­did­ates; who con­trols the can­did­ates con­trols the party. In­deed, in re­cent weeks re­ports have sur­faced of a com­pet­i­tion between Karl Rove, the wealthy Koch broth­ers and oth­ers to see who can build the most dom­in­ant data plat­form. (Just this week, the com­mit­tee inked a part­ner­ship with a Rove-af­fil­i­ated firm, Liberty Works. Us­ing RNC data, Liberty Works will build a data­base plat­form that will be man­aged by a third en­tity, Data Trust.)

Data own­er­ship im­plies the abil­ity to as­sert your own rules gov­ern­ing who can see, use and re­dis­trib­ute what’s con­tained in the data­base. Be­cause the RNC’s goal is the cent­ral­iz­a­tion of all Re­pub­lic­an data, this could pose a prob­lem for, say, rival Re­pub­lic­ans fa­cing off in a primary con­test.

“What if the com­mit­tee (prefers) a cer­tain can­did­ate? Or who­ever owns this data is able to rent the data or to sell the data?” said Vin­cent Har­ris, the Texas-based strategist who ran di­git­al for Newt Gin­grich and Rick Perry. “The idea is cer­tainly ex­cit­ing, but clar­ity would be good con­cern­ing fair use of the data and en­sur­ing that con­ser­vat­ives, po­ten­tial primary chal­lengers, will have ac­cess. Of­ten it’s the more-con­ser­vat­ive cam­paigns, the ones many es­tab­lish­ment folks don’t al­ways like, that have the en­ergy on their side. Will their own in­bound data po­ten­tially be used down the line against them?”

Skep­ti­cism of the RNC’s new di­git­al ini­ti­at­ive isn’t unique to party elites; it’s also spread to the rank and file, where state-level or­gan­izers have com­plained that the party com­mit­tee’s ex­ist­ing tools don’t serve their needs. As one lower-level West Coast GOP of­fi­cial said, “it’s pretty de­plor­able.”

“Phone num­bers were rare, and there were no email ad­dresses,” the of­fi­cial said of his at­tempt to down­load some 50,000 RNC files earli­er this year from GOP Data Cen­ter, the tool the com­mit­tee makes avail­able for state and loc­al races. RNC spokes­per­son Kirsten Kukowski ac­know­ledged that Data Cen­ter “doesn’t in­clude all the data points we have.” But the com­mit­tee’s new data plat­form man­aged by Data Trust aims to ad­dress some of that. It’ll bring to­geth­er voter lists from vari­ous Re­pub­lic­an com­mit­tees and ex­tern­al or­gan­iz­a­tions, as well as al­low ap­proved groups to build onto the plat­form as they see fit.

Wheth­er that means field or­gan­izers will be able to up­date data re­cords them­selves is still un­clear. Since grass­roots staff are of­ten the ones who first find out when a voter’s ad­dress or con­tact in­form­a­tion has changed, giv­ing those or­gan­izers the per­mis­sion to make ed­its could have im­port­ant rami­fic­a­tions for fu­ture races, said long­time GOP strategist Mi­chael Turk.

“You can ac­tu­ally bring all of the changes those people make in­to the data­base as es­sen­tially metadata,” said Turk, “and then that data gets run through a fil­ter to either ap­prove or dis­ap­prove, lit­er­ally on a per-re­cord basis, its in­clu­sion in the lar­ger body of data.”

Un­til that hap­pens, lower-level Re­pub­lic­ans may still find them­selves be­ing driv­en to off-the-shelf data vendors, po­ten­tially sink­ing the RNC’s di­git­al re­hab­il­it­a­tion be­fore it really be­gins.

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