Republican Consultants Plot New Tech-Savvy Infrastructure

Republicans develop a four-step plan to train and nurture the next generation of campaign operatives

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Melina Mara / The Washington Post / Getty Images

Phone bank at Mitt Romney for President headquarters, in Springfield, Virginia, March 5, 2012.

Correction Appended March 4, 2013

After last year’s blowout election, the Republican digital strategist Patrick Ruffini went on a not-so-secret mission to find out how to fix what was wrong with his party. “In less than 12 hours, the #infiltration begins,” he tweeted, the day before the start of RootsCamp, an annual conference for Democratic digital, data and grassroots strategists that is held by a liberal non-profit group called the New Organizing Institute.

What he found at the event came as a sort of revelation: A vast liberal brain trust bursting with young talent who had advanced far beyond Republicans in the art and science of using data, analytics and voter outreach. He live-tweeted his observations, and then began meeting with other young strategists in his party, like Katie Harbath, who handles Republican campaign outreach for Facebook, Kristen Soltis Anderson, a pollster at the Winston Group, and Reihan Salam, a political columnist for the National Review.

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They decided that the conservative movement simply did not have what liberals did: An infrastructure to train and nurture the next generation of campaign operatives and develop cutting-edge techniques. So they decided to take a shot at filling the void, by developing a proposal for a suite of new outside groups that would mimic, and eventually outpace, Democratic efforts. “We are not going to start a single group that is going to solve all the problems,” said Ruffini, a former eCampaign director for the Republican National Committee who is now president of the consulting firm Engage. “What it is going to involve is an ecosystem.”

The first part of that ecosystem, for which incorporation papers were filed last week, will be called the Empower Action Group. It is envisioned as a conservative answer to the New Organizing Institute, a place for training and connecting young conservative talent. It will aim to increase the ranks of people with digital, data and organizing know-how working for the GOP. “We are just hoping to create more people who can go out and implement,” Ruffini said.

The group has already begun seeking funding. “There are so many folks who are so frustrated about how the last cycle went, they are looking to commit resources to fix things,” says the pollster Anderson, whose firm helps lead opinion research for the House GOP leadership.

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But the Empower Action Group is just the first of four new organizations they hope to create. Another proposed effort, provisionally called The R&D Lab, would be a conservative response to the liberal Analyst Institute, which develops and tests new techniques for progressive voter contact and persuasion, all of which informed the Obama campaign in 2012. “Data in all forms—polling, analytics, experiments, policy research—must be at the heart of successful Republican rebuilding,” reads a five-page white paper proposing the new effort, which has already been circulated to donors. “Google famously tested forty-one shades of blue to see which one was best for a graphic, yet Republicans do not systematically tests their assumptions and attempt to simulate outcomes before spending resources on various tactics.”

The group also hopes to create a new organization provisionally called The Venture Fund, which is meant to repeat the success of the liberal New Media Ventures, a start-up incubator founded by the Democracy Alliance, a coalition of wealthy progressive benefactors. “A similar force within the Republican Party should aim to be more disruptive,” reads the white paper, “a startup accelerator patterned after Silicon Valley’s Y Combinator that offers small investments and hands-on mentorship to young conservative technologists.”

The final effort envisioned by Ruffini and his colleagues would be a Club for Growth-style campaign fundraising organization, which would promise donations to Republican campaigns that adopt data-driven techniques. “The entity itself could raise hard money to provide as ‘seed funding’ for campaigns interested in conducting tests within their own campaigns,” reads the white paper.

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It is still too soon to know if these efforts will grab hold among the Republican fundraising community. Other efforts are underway, both by the Republican National Committee and Charles and David Koch’s network of organizations, to assess the reasons for the 2012 defeat and proposed fixes. But the Ruffini effort does benefit from involving many of the young strategists who will likely be a part of any solution.

It also echoes a similar brainstorming process that young progressive activists undertook after the 2004 election defeat, when the reelection campaign of George W. Bush benefited from a clear technological and organizational advantage over Democrat John Kerry. Many of the groups that Republicans now envy, including the New Organizing Institute, New Media Ventures and the Analyst Institute, grew out of early meetings in bars and boardrooms in D.C. between twenty-something online activists and organizers.

Judith Freeman, the founder of New Organizing Institute, says that the success or failure of the new projects on the right will be determined by the persistence and dedication of the people they recruit. “As anyone who talks about startups, tech or political, will tell you, it’s not the idea, it’s the execution and a million other big and little things that matter to success,” she said. She also noted that the Republican barriers to success may be even greater in 2013 than the Democratic one in 2005. “They have the bigger challenges of conservative ideology and changing demographics, which no amount of technology and tactics can supersede,” she said.

That said, Republicans will have to start their rebuilding somewhere. “This is a step for us to be able to, at a bare minimum, catch up with where they are before we leapfrog them,” said Harbath, the Republican point person at Facebook.  “The gap is pretty large.”

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The original version of this article did not make clear that both “The Venture Fund” and “The R&D Lab,” which are named in the white paper proposal, are provisional names for the new organizations, not final names. The article has been changed to reflect this.