Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush in San Francisco Thursday speaking to employees at Thumbtack, an online startup. (Photo: Eric Risberg/AP)
SAN FRANCISCO – A top digital consultant to Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign had harsh words for Republican technologists on Saturday, saying that many of them are “impostors” and that the GOP has until recently been an “atrociously bad” place for tech-savvy people wanting to get involved in politics.
The Republican Party “was a terrible place for a smart technologist to come work,” Andy Barkett, a former Facebook engineer, said at a conference on technology and politics hosted by Lincoln Labs, a conservative nonprofit group.
Barkett, who was hired by the Republican National Committee as its chief technology officer two years ago, made reference to his time at the RNC, which did not go smoothly.
“I mean, it was a terrible place for me when I started. It was horrible. It was, like, the worst experience of my life,” Barkett said of his entry into Republican politics after spending more than a decade at Silicon Valley companies, where he moved into angel investing on the side. “It was just, like, atrociously bad.”
Barkett was brought in after the RNC conducted an “autopsy” on the 2012 election that concluded they lagged far behind the Democrats in using technology to target voters for persuasion and turnout.
But Barkett said that Republican digital culture “is getting better, and now for the first time since I’ve been involved in it over the last few years, you can take a smart person and plug them in and they can be really effective and make a difference.”
And yet, Barkett, 34, said that too many people in Republican politics, and political culture in general, still are too ignorant of basic technology.
“There’s a whole bunch of people in politics who say a lot of words, all the buzzwords that we talked about, and they say, ‘I want more analytics.’ None of them have any idea what any of those things mean,” he said, seated on a stage during a panel discussion alongside digital operatives working for the presidential campaigns of Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
“They have no idea what the difference is between building an infrastructure of servers that know how to send e-mails to having an e-mail list or the difference between the records in the voter file and the analytics that you do in addition to those,” he said.
Barkett urged people in politics doing tech-related work to “get over the impostor syndrome and learn what the ef you are talking about.”
“Be honest with yourself — you’re probably a political person, and you probably don’t know what the ef you’re taking about. And the first thing you should do is probably dig in and learn. In the short run it will hurt you, because you will be exposed as a fraud,” he said. “You people will learn that you don’t know these things yet. And in the long run it will help you, because you will then be one of the 1 percent of people in politics who do know what they’re talking about.”
Yahoo Politics asked Barkett during the panel whether he was criticizing the 200 or so Republicans working in the tech space, and he clarified his comments.
“I wouldn’t say all 200 of them are complete phonies. I would say that a lot of them are good at one thing or another. So a lot of them may be very good at online fundraising, which is a thing, which is important, or they may be very good at online advertising in a political context, which is a thing that’s important,” Barkett said. “There’s not a lot of people who are genuinely well-rounded technology leaders. It’s a pretty small percentage of that number.”
Barkett is a controversial figure in Republican politics. His blunt style of communication and willingness to openly criticize other vendors and consultants quickly created many enemies when he arrived at the RNC. Less than a year after being hired by the RNC and its private sector data arm, Data Trust, to do work at both entities, he left Data Trust and went to work only at the RNC.
One of Barkett’s tasks at the RNC was to build a digital dashboard to access voter file data. That dashboard, which was called Beacon, never acquired a high user adoption rate and has been eclipsed by other platforms.
The RNC is currently working on a new dashboard they hope will compete with the one being delivered to a growing number of Republican campaigns by the Koch brothers’ political arm, Freedom Partners, through a subsidiary called i360.
Barkett is now doing work for Bush’s campaign through a company called Digital Core Campaign, LLC, which was paid $64,216 on June 30 for “Web service.” DCC advertises on its website that they do “big data infrastructure,” “modeling and analytics,” “digital communications” and “field and finance integration.” The New York Times reported earlier this year that Barkett would be building a voter file to be used by both Bush’s campaign and the super-PAC supporting the former Florida governor.
Barkett on Saturday referred to Bush as his “client.”