Data Evangelists Descend on Conservative Confab

CPAC Attendees Want Better Tech and Data Know-How for Small Election Campaigns

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This week's Conservative Political Action Conference has some on the left looking over their shoulders. But it's not all the right-wing rabble-rousing on display at the annual event that has them on edge: It's the tech training.

A handful of the right's longtime technology and data evangelists have descended on the Washington, D.C. event, and their goal is to bring much-needed training and tools to small Republican campaigns.

The right feels like it's been outgunned in recent elections. And for good reason. The left has been building its toolbox for 10 years. "There is a lot of conversation right now in terms of the gap between the left and right vis-à-vis tech, and there's a common assumption that the left is way ahead," said Ethan Roeder, executive director of New Organizing Institute, which was founded after the 2004 presidential election by forlorn John Kerry campaigners hoping to disseminate what they learned that cycle about online fundraising and organizing to others on the left.

NOI runs its own bootcamp-style training events in addition to an annual week-long gathering of progressives called RootsCamp intended to facilitate sharing of campaign tech knowledge.

"The left does have a deeper bench of technology and practitioners, but it's hardly true that they're bumbling idiots on the right," said Mr. Roeder. "Right now Engage is at CPAC doing a bootcamp."

Engage is a digital agency that serves groups and campaigns on the right. It was started by veteran digital political campaigner and former Republican National Committee Digital Strategy Director Patrick Ruffini.

Dubbed CPAC Bootcamp, a series of training sessions held this Thursday through Saturday was designed to bring tech and data analytics education to a place where Republicans already are anyway. "We want to address specifically that gap that exists, I think, pretty clearly between the right and the left in terms of the level of staffing and the level of sophistication," said Mr. Ruffini.

Would-be campaign technologists can attend classes on things like data mining, data for targeting voters, using voter-file data, conducting randomized controlled experiments in the field, as well as basics like using Microsoft Excel spreadsheets to cross reference polling data with voter file data.

After losing the 2012 presidential election, said Chad Barth, president of the Empower Action Group, "we had talked about what are we lacking in the center-right movement. We realized we were just not training people how to do things better anymore." Mr. Barth worked at the RNC for eight years on political technologies and data for grassroots and field campaigning.

Despite being outnumbered by people on the left, Mr. Barth and Mr. Ruffini attended RootsCamp after the election.

"Certainly we're trying to do our own type of thing akin to [NOI's RootsCamp]," said Mr. Barth.

"You see NOI and RootsCamp do data mining, and they're doing it at a congressional race level. Now you've brought in this farm team, if you will, of people who are trying to do this," he said. "We need more of those in the center-right movement at a congressional and statewide level."

Like NOI and its brethren have done on the left for years, the idea for the Empower initiative is to educate people working on down-ballot GOP campaigns who can't afford to hire a consulting firm to do digital ad targeting or data analytics to determine the best doors to knock on.

At CPAC today, said Mr. Ruffini, someone asked how to do Facebook ad targeting at the voting precinct level. "The people who are actually going to be taking advantage of that aren't the ones with the huge budgets," he said, referring to smaller municipal campaigns that only need to reach a specific set of voting districts.

Whether the information gleaned at CPAC or future Empower training sessions will affect campaigns in this year's midterms is somewhat doubtful. "I do think this will be a time to experiment, and I think 2016 is the potential target," said Mr. Ruffini.

"The Democrats did not obviously wave a magic wand and build their digital overnight. It took years to get to where they are now," he added.

Democrats agree. "On one hand we obviously don't want to fall in the trap of resting on our laurels," said Tom Bonier, co-founder and partner of Democratic data analytics firm Clarity Campaign Labs. However, he stressed, "When you look at the investment [of Democratic party organizations and campaigns] that's something that you can't build in a year or two years or a cycle or two cycles."

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