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The Republican Party Wants To Become An App

A new platform in at least one sense of the word. The right’s new data obsession.

In the Republican party’s new comprehensive reboot document, one word appears with surprising frequency.

Written 197 times in the 97-page document, the call for “data” — more, better, smarter, more accessible — is the closest thing this plan has to a unifying theme. There are section headers such as “Generating Better Data” and “Building a Data Analytics Institute,” as well as language obviously co-opted from the tech world (or at least borrowed from the same school of management consulting). Like Google or Facebook, the GOP proclaims that it wants to be a “Bottom-Up, not Top-Down” organization.

Most striking is a passage in which the document describes the creation of a unified data service — a platform, not unlike Google’s or Facebook’s or Dropbox’s:

Romney campaign volunteers will see special meaning in passages like this. A catastrophic failure in Orca, the campaign’s crude attempt at an internet-based vote-tracking program, left Republican get-out-the-vote activists impotent and frustrated on Election Day.

But Orca was merely an illustration of a much larger problem: that the Obama campaign had succeeded in building a complete digital platform, with data strong enough to survive (and help win) countless election cycles. Alexis Madrigal explained in November:

The campaign had turned out more volunteers and gotten more donors than in 2008. Sure, the field organization was more entrenched and experienced, but the difference stemmed in large part from better technology. The tech team’s key products — Dashboard, the Call Tool, the Facebook Blaster, the PeopleMatcher, and Narwhal — made it simpler and easier for anyone to engage with the President’s reelection effort.

The Republican Party has no real equivalents to these tools; nor does it have the data necessary to make them useful.

This is a reasonable fixation for the party to have, but the document’s need to define basic tech terms (UI, API) suggests a party that may be even further behind than it realizes. And passages like these don’t help:

To help with our messaging and connecting with non-traditional Republican voters, an allied group could produce videos of minorities, women, and young voters explaining why they are Republicans and post them on the Internet.

We also need to communicate with young voters where they get their information. We can’t use old communication tools for young voters. Technology is second nature to young voters. Using social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and Instagram is important, but we also need to be actively looking for and utilizing the newest and most cutting-edge social media platforms to engage this generation.

67% of American adults are on Facebook today. “The Internet” isn’t about “young voters” anymore, and hasn’t been for half a decade.

In tech terms, this document puts the Republican campaign machine ahead of where it was but well behind of where it needs to be.

In fact, this app-ified, platform-centric party sounds little like the 2012 Obama campaign and a lot like this one, described in Wired. The title: “Obama’s Secret Weapons: Internet, Databases and Psychology.” The publish date: October 2008.

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