It’s a fact that over the last four years, Democrats have invested more in campaign technology than Republicans. While that didn’t result in the electoral victories they’d hoped for down-ballot, it’s an investment that will continue to provide compounding returns for the left.
With new platforms like Mobilize, Reach, and OutVote, Democrats were able to translate grassroots enthusiasm into opted-in relationships with campaigns and state parties. They’ll be able to build on that network as long as Democrats continue to nurture it.
Republicans, on the other hand, have failed to diversify sufficiently beyond paid messaging like TV, online advertising, and mail. Unlike organizing and building audiences, the effects of advertising evaporate after 7-10 days. A notable bright spot on the right in this regard is the RNC’s Lead Right program which combines sophisticated data from Data Trust, best-in-class voter-contact apps, and boots on the ground.
Chris Sacca, an early investor in Twitter, Uber, and Instagram, who has also invested in campaign tech for the left, explained: “Our bet is that, over time, startups inventing new models and building scalable technology will have higher ROI than throwing money at Super PACs and consultants.”
We must be clear about technology’s role in campaigns. The outcomes of elections, especially as you move farther down the ballot, often have nothing to do with the candidates or the campaigns they run. Everything a winning campaign did wasn’t right and everything a losing campaign did wasn’t wrong.
Campaign technology, then, isn’t about altering the political environment, issues relevant to voters, or quality of candidate, but rather maximizing available opportunities. Technology can help a campaign better allocate resources to the right voters or increase turnout by a few points so that when conditions are favorable, marginal campaigns emerge victorious.
Like the cynic who smells flowers and wonders where the funeral is, we must consider what might have happened during the 2020 elections if the right had invested as heavily in campaign tech as the left. Would we be witnessing the retirement of Nancy Pelosi or could the Senate majority be secure without a pair of runoffs?
There are four key areas where Republicans must focus their innovation. First and foremost, we need better forecasting. Campaigns rely on traditional polling to provide guidance about strategy, but modern campaign tactics like digital advertising, P2P texting, and relational organizing demand greater precision. Regardless of where you land in the debate, it’s clear that polling has been taxed beyond its capabilities and new methods and measures are needed to properly allocate resources.
Down ballot, digital marketing continues to be a challenge. Building the conversion funnels and creating content necessary to be effective presents a high hurdle for campaigns with smaller budgets. This is one area where technology can be helpful in adapting marketing automation and reduce the friction to create content.
While Republicans made significant strides in prioritizing online fundraising with the launch of WinRed, many candidates and consultants still refuse to invest the resources needed to build email and text messaging lists for fundraising. If Facebook and Google continue to clamp down on political advertising, the challenge will only become greater. New solutions are needed to shorten the time between when an investment in online fundraising is made and when it returns a profit.
Finally, campaign management is an area ripe for innovation. In the commercial space, new technologies are improving the way companies are run. There are similar opportunities for innovation when it comes to politics with the unique challenges and nature of the industry.
Republicans cannot rest on our laurels after a surprisingly successful cycle in down-ballot races. The Democrats and their allies will continue to build the tools their candidates and grassroots need. We must do the same.
Eric Wilson is the Managing Partner of Startup Caucus, an investment fund and accelerator for Republican campaign technology.