The political world has been abuzz with speculation about the Senate races and whether the Republicans will take over majority of the Upper House. While this was happening, I spent my time finding out what was really afoot within the Republican world.
This all started when I had the opportunity to see a presentation by Andy Barkett, the Republican National Committee’s (RNC) first Chief Technology Officer. What I was listening to piqued my interest. It is as if the RNC had finally come alive. I wrote a column about the challenges facing the party during the turmoil after the 2012 election and the election of Reince Preibus as the Chairman of the RNC, reinstalling Mr. Preibus as the head of the party. Having actually worked on the past four presidential elections, I have seen first-hand the capabilities of the party and what was needed to win. In that column, I advocated a vertically-integrated system that used the assets of the RNC to aid in the election of offices down to the local sheriff with information flowing back up to the national party. This seemed to be what I was hearing from Barkett, but I wanted to explore the status of the party’s information capabilities more.
That brought me to an interview with Chuck Defeo, the Chief Digital Officer and Deputy Chief of Staff of the RNC. Defeo, a Political Science graduate of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, somewhat fell into being a tech guy. He started working for then-Senator John Ashcroft in 1996, when all those late nights of computer geeking led him to organizing the computer side of the Senator’s operations. Defeo used that as a springboard to other political tech gigs, which then landed him as the person who organized the digital efforts for the 2004 Bush reelection campaign. Those were the days when the Republicans were ahead in the organizing game. Since then, the Obama campaigns have left the Republicans behind in their efforts to turn out voters, raise money and win elections.
So what did Defeo find when he came on board last July? Surprisingly, he found a very positive attitude -- a willingness to change and improve with the goal of helping Republican candidates win in 2014, thus building toward 2016.
The perception of the Republicans falling behind was because of two reasons as stated by Defeo. First, the RNC has had four different leaders since 2004 and there was a perceived underfunding in the technology area over that period. Second, in the two Presidential election cycles, Obama had a billion dollars. In 2012, they had barrels of money plus they had a four-year run-up to the election to put their team and strategy in place. I spent 12 days in Columbus, Ohio, just prior to Election Day, and one could see and feel the advantages the Obama team had over Romney’s -- just 90 days in existence since winning the nomination. As for looking ahead, Defeo told me “The DNC just received the data from the Obama campaign last year, and they will not have a billion dollars in 2014.”
The test case for the work being done by Defeo and his team was this year’s March 13th special election in Florida for the 13th district Congressional seat. In this race David Jolly, a Republican, beat the favored Democrat Alex Sink, a former gubernatorial candidate. The voter contact done by the RNC was very precise as Defeo told me they got within 415 votes of their targeted absentee votes from a list of over 20,000. This very effective campaign and the turn out the vote effort allowed Jolly to surprise Sink and take the seat by almost 2%.
Defeo and his team now have their focus on ramping up that effort to compete in thousands of races across the country. It is a large task, the results of which we will see on November 4th. As for integrating the network from the RNC down to the local races, Defeo stated “The database has been built. We need to improve access to the data for our candidates and reception of data back from those candidates and their campaigns.”
It is clear that the RNC has taken the commitment to create a first-class technology base to provide the tools for Republican candidates to compete in every race in the country. We will soon see whether the fruits of their efforts overcome the prior technology advantage Obama’s team created for the Democrats. These things swing like a pendulum and we will know soon whether they have swung back.