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After the Cave: What Have Republicans Learned About Digital Since 2012?

A year after losing the presidential election, are Republican campaigns finally learning from their digital mistakes?

One year ago this week, Republicans suffered a greater than expected defeat, and it was partly because they seemed oblivious to modern ways of doing things. This critique could be made on both messaging and tactical fronts, as the failed Orca project came to symbolize everything that was comically wrong with the party’s technology and digital operations.

One year later, we are discussing Barack Obama’s epic tech fail. Obamacare is on the ropes. Chris Christie successfully adapted to a modern electorate in a blue state, winning 51 percent of the Latino vote and surging among millennials.

Barely a month ago, the conversation was about how Republicans would continue to struggle into 2014 and 2016. But, lo and behold, performance in office actually matters, and it is now plausible that a Republican nominee would go into a general election against Hillary Clinton on even footing.

Rather than patting ourselves on the back, this ups the ante for Republicans to have the digital and ground games up to speed by 2016. One year later, how is the GOP doing on this front?

We ask this question against the backdrop of races for Virginia Governor and Attorney General which were decided within the margin of strategy and tactics. It’s quite possible that the legacy and know-how of the Obama 2012 operation was able to drag Terry McAuliffe across the finish line. Yes, McAuliffe had more money, but he also used technology to spend it more effectively.

The good news? The Republican party committees — the RNC, the NRSC, and NRCC — actually seem to understand this challenge, making serious hires with actual technology backgrounds to tackle this problem. Underappreciated in this process is the RNC’s investment in a permanent field infrastructure, something lacking in the past. Professional operatives are also demonstrating more interest and curiosity in the ability of technology and analytics to help their campaigns run more efficiently.

The bad news? The campaigns (whose performance actually determines who gets elected) still haven’t adjusted. They are still hiring the same people with the same cultural baggage, and making many of the same bad decisions. Either they believe the Obama field and digital example doesn’t apply to them, or they claim to be addressing the challenge with one-dimensional solutions that address a small part of the problem, or knockoffs that don’t are no match for the vastness and sophistication of the Democrats’ tech operation.

We have seen many staff announcements and product launches in the past year, but the only thing that really matters is what outcome they produce. What are the outward signs that Republicans actually invested in digital in 2013?

In Virginia, they were few. This is not due to a lack of innovation and talented staff at the campaign level, but to a hyper-reactive, TV-focused traditional consultants at the top who still don’t believe that digital is part of the basic blocking and tackling one needs to do to actually move votes.

The numbers were clear in the Governor’s race. Terry McAuliffe paid his digital advertising agency 13 percent of what he paid for TV & radio ads. Ken Cuccinelli paid his approximately 2.5 percent of his TV costs, with the vast majority of that likely eaten up by day to day operating costs, making the real number spent on media much less. All told, McAuliffe appears to have spent at least seven times of Cuccinelli’s total on digital paid media — the only kind I as a Netflix-subscribing Virginia voter ever saw.

Cuccinelli’s lack of funding (as much as this can be said for a campaign that raised $19 million through October) doesn’t explain this. His campaign still could have spent 13 percent of their budget, but chose not to. (For reference, Obama spent 20 percent online in 2012.) It may be time for the party committees to step in and set standards for minimal online spending, and defund the campaigns that fall short.

In addition, McAuliffe successfully downscaled Obama’s analytics “Cave” to a statewide race. For just under 1 percent of Democratic spending in Virginia, or about $200,000, a Washington, D.C. company called BlueLabs ran continually updated dynamic models that not only assigned each Virginia voter a score on their likelihood to vote for McAuliffe, but also judged how likely they were to change their mind.

This last paragraph is key, because Republicans looking to replicate Obama’s success won’t do it by simply adopting his 2012 campaign model, which was top-heavy and reliant on massive staffing and resources. The arc of technology disruption means that innovations get progressively cheaper and more bite-sized with each passing version. By 2016, statistical modeling could be a push-button exercise for Democrats at all levels, while Republicans struggle to implement the 2012 version for a single campaign.

2013 provides a thin sample size, but it’s fair to say that Republicans are still searching for a campaign that’s actually serious about improving upon the digital and data model of Obama for America. This is no substitute for good candidates and a good message, but 2013 showed signs of hope on those fronts. Good campaigns, the third leg of the stool, remains a question mark. Let’s make sure that this changes, at all levels, in 2014 and 2016.

Follow Patrick Ruffini on Twitter.

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