Kirsten Andersen

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Data Wars: As GOP races to catch up with Dems before 2014, will social conservatives be left behind?

Kirsten Andersen
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WASHINGTON, D.C., June 11, 2013 (LifeSiteNews) – In 2008, a private tech company was quietly formed in Washington.  Its purpose was simple: collect and store data on U.S. voters from across the issue spectrum and from all walks of life, and sort it into easy-to-use files that any left-leaning candidate or issue group could use to reach individuals with a message specifically tailored to their interests and lifestyle.

The company was called Catalist, and it has proven to be the most powerful and effective weapon the Left has ever wielded in the battle to win the ultimate prize in the American political cycle: Getting out the vote. In 2008 and 2012, the Obama campaign, Planned Parenthood, homosexual activists, labor unions and other progressive powerhouses used the company’s more than 265 million detailed individual voter profiles to secure decisive victories for liberal candidates and their agenda, from the White House to statewide votes on same-sex “marriage.”

Now, the Republican Party establishment is scrambling to cross the data divide. 

The question social conservatives should be asking themselves is whether they will be left behind.

Get-out-the-vote, or GOTV, as it’s called in political circles, has undergone a rapid transformation in the wake of the digital revolution.  No longer is it necessary to corral massive numbers of volunteers or paid temps into a warehouse full of telephones to cold-call thousands of people with a vague script written for broad appeal. Instead, automated “robocallers” can use computerized lists to send targeted messages to exactly the right people – people whose profiles indicate they’re likely to be swayed by a certain kind of message, or a certain person’s voice.

In the field, technology streamlines door-to-door efforts considerably, telling candidates which household will respond to which message, and even within a household, which residents hold what views.  Interactive maps displayed on tablets and smartphones offer comprehensive details on the political makeup of every neighborhood, and allow field representatives to send instant feedback from voters’ doorsteps to campaign headquarters.  It’s a far cry from even ten years ago, when a volunteer for a presidential campaign might have been handed an outdated party registration list and a map at the local party office, forced to make corrections on the go with a clipboard, pen and legal pad.

In the war between the parties for technological domination of the 21st century political landscape, there is no denying that the Democrats won an early and decisive victory with the inception of Catalist. But the Republican National Committee has made clear their intent to close the technology gap. 

In 2011, with backing from Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS political action committee, the RNC launched Data Trust, a data-sharing company modeled on Catalist that was designed to coordinate data sets from across the political right, as well as additional information purchased from commercial sources; for instance, lists of subscribers to gun magazines.  

But Data Trust wasn’t run by tech experts; it was run by established Republican political operatives.  The company’s executive director is Anne Hathaway, a senior RNC staffer and close associate of Rove’s. Its board of directors boasts two former RNC chairmen (Mike Duncan and Jim Nicholson), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s former chief of staff Billy Piper, and longtime Republican insider Maria Cino.

This political, rather than tech-based approach to leadership proved disastrous for the company’s reputation during the 2012 elections. One west coast GOP official told the National Journal the quality of the 50,000 RNC files he received from the company was “pretty deplorable.”

“Phone numbers were rare, and there were no email addresses,” the official said.

Michigan GOP official Steven Kuivenhoven told Politico that “volunteers have been very frustrated” with the company’s GOP Data Center. The software is “a patchwork of apps built on an old database structure,” he said. “This is very inadequate as compared to what the Democrats use.”

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As a result, the RNC Growth and Opportunity Project report recommended Data Trust be replaced.  “(I)f Data Trust is not capable of rising to the new data challenges we face, other partners should be identified,” the report read.

In May of this year, it looked like that partner had been selected when Liberty Works, a joint venture between former Bush adviser Karl Rove and former J.Crew CEO Dick Boyce, was awarded a contract with the RNC to revamp their data sharing infrastructure. But after Boyce’s overtures to Silicon Valley employees and financiers were met with a cold reception and the company announced its plan to outsource the actual engineering work, the deal fell apart.

Last week, the RNC announced the hiring of a Chief Technology Officer, 32-year-old Andy Barkett, whose resume features substantive engineering experience at both Facebook and Google. “I am confident that with Andy’s experience and our continued efforts to build meaningful relationships with experts in Silicon Valley, we’ll see the changes to this part of our operation that we all agree are both important and necessary to winning elections in the future,” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement.

With Barkett’s hiring, the competition is back on to see who will ultimately be handed the keys to the RNC’s data vault.  Boyce and Rove are still in the running to be involved with the RNC’s data-management efforts in some capacity. But the billionaire Koch brothers, who hail from the socially liberal wing of the Republican party and support embryonic stem cell research, drug legalization, and gay “marriage,” are backing a company called Themis. Themis is a voter data-focused offshoot of a consumer data company called i360, which claims on its website to maintain a “fully integrated and constantly updated database of over 187+ million active voters and 211+ million US consumers provid[ing] hundreds of data points on every American adult that is currently or potentially politically active.” 

There are a number of smaller voter-data startups fighting for the coveted RNC contract, which is expected to net the victor up to $20 million to start and potentially hundreds of millions over the life of the contract. Among them are rVoter, Voter Gravity and MGA Holdings. But so far, none have the traction of the well-funded Beltway insiders who have their eyes on a bigger prize than money: Whoever comes out on top will have unprecedented control over the success or failure of any candidate or movement. 

As get-out-the-vote efforts become increasingly technology-driven, those with the ability to control the flow of data will also have control over who can access it, and for what purpose. 

Wrote Brian Fung of National Journal: “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.”

This could pose a problem for social conservatives as the RNC seeks to downplay or liberalize the party platform on issues like abortion and same-sex ‘marriage.’

 “What if the committee (prefers) a certain candidate? Or whoever owns this data is able to rent the data or to sell the data?” Vincent Harris, a Texas-based consultant who masterminded Governor Rick Perry’s tech strategy, asked National Journal. “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?”

Blogger Erick Erickson thinks so.  “If you disagree with the [establishment] side of the GOP … they’ll plant stories about you in the New York Times, make sure the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal attacks you, threaten donors and demand they withhold money from you, take away your committee positions, shut down all your legislative initiatives, etc.,” he wrote on his Friends of Liberty blog. “That’s why the GOP should not put data in Karl Rove’s hands.”

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