What it Really Means to 'Close the GOP Tech Gap'

Brian Fung

Whomever the Republican National Committee taps to fill its top tech post has an unenviable job to do.

The race has come down to three people. They all work for big Silicon Valley companies nominally, but all unmistakably hail from the Washington establishment. Facebook’s Katie Harbath, who previously served as the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s chief digital strategist, is currently in the lead. The remaining two candidates are Twitter’s Mindy Finn and Google’s Rob Saliterman. Each of the latter has worked for former President George W. Bush at various points.

Who controls the data controls the candidates; who controls the candidates controls the party.

The winner of this contest is going to inherit some sticky challenges. To describe the problem simply as a matter of “closing the tech gap” between Democrats and Republicans oversimplifies the tactical obstacles that stand in the RNC’s way. If the GOP really wants to catch up, it’ll have to settle two specific internal debates: one about data ownership and another about data permissions.

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. Indeed, in recent weeks reports have surfaced of a competition between Karl Rove, the wealthy Koch brothers and others to see who can build the most dominant data platform. (Just this week, the committee inked a partnership with a Rove-affiliated firm, Liberty Works. Using RNC data, Liberty Works will build a database platform that will be managed by a third entity, Data Trust.)

Data ownership implies the ability to assert your own rules governing who can see, use and redistribute what’s contained in the database. Because the RNC’s goal is the centralization of all Republican data, this could pose a problem for, say, rival Republicans facing off in a primary contest.

“What if the committee (prefers) a certain candidate? Or whoever owns this data is able to rent the data or to sell the data?” said Vincent Harris, the Texas-based strategist who ran digital for Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry. “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?"

Skepticism of the RNC’s new digital initiative isn’t unique to party elites; it’s also spread to the rank and file, where state-level organizers have complained that the party committee’s existing tools don’t serve their needs. As one lower-level West Coast GOP official said, “it’s pretty deplorable.”

“Phone numbers were rare, and there were no email addresses,” the official said of his attempt to download some 50,000 RNC files earlier this year from GOP Data Center, the tool the committee makes available for state and local races. RNC spokesperson Kirsten Kukowski acknowledged that Data Center “doesn’t include all the data points we have.” But the committee’s new data platform managed by Data Trust aims to address some of that. It’ll bring together voter lists from various Republican committees and external organizations, as well as allow approved groups to build onto the platform as they see fit.

Whether that means field organizers will be able to update data records themselves is still unclear. Since grassroots staff are often the ones who first find out when a voter’s address or contact information has changed, giving those organizers the permission to make edits could have important ramifications for future races, said longtime GOP strategist Michael Turk.

“You can actually bring all of the changes those people make into the database as essentially metadata,” said Turk, “and then that data gets run through a filter to either approve or disapprove, literally on a per-record basis, its inclusion in the larger body of data.”

Until that happens, lower-level Republicans may still find themselves being driven to off-the-shelf data vendors, potentially sinking the RNC’s digital rehabilitation before it really begins.