The presidential campaigns have fueled a D.C. tech boom this cycle but Republicans are struggling to capitalize. That’s because while GOP consultants have essentially closed the technology gap with their Democratic rivals, true parity remains elusive thanks to a dearth of personnel on the right ranging from data scientists to digital strategists.
“The plumbing is in place, the capabilities are there, but the campaigns still haven’t structurally solved [a personnel shortage],” Zac Moffatt, co-founder of Targeted Victory, said at this week’s CampaignTech East conference in Washington, DC.
The party continues to need everything from lawyers to approve content, to ad copy writers to data scientists, argued Moffatt.
Brittany Kaiser, director of program development at Cambridge Analytica, echoed that assessment. Kaiser’s company worked with Ted Cruz’s campaign this cycle, gaining attention for its use of psychographic targeting, particularly ahead of the Iowa Caucuses.
Republicans have caught up technologically, said Kaiser, but there’s not enough people on the right with a solid background in data science currently in the Republican campaign infrastructure.
“It’s very difficult to find the right data science talent, train [them] and get them in [place in] time for the campaigns,” she said.
And with Donald Trump as the party’s presumptive nominee, the party may be headed for a general election in which the campaign of its standard-bearer does little to train and equip emerging Republican digital operatives.
The view from the left? Carol Davidsen, vice president of political technology at comScore, thinks the real issue on the Republican side isn’t necessarily a shortage of data pros, but a lack of willingness to work within the party organizations.
“There’s not a shortage of data scientists out there,” said Davidsen, who was the director of integration and media targeting for President Obama’s 2012 campaign.
“The main difference between groups that are working on the right and the left is that there is an associated pay cut that comes with working for a party-affiliated organization and, in my experience, there’s more people on the left who are willing to take that pay cut. So it’s not that are a shortage of Republicans in the data-science field. There’s a shortage of Republicans in the data-science field who are willing to take a pay cut in order to work on those causes.”
Recruiting the right professionals is only part of the challenge, according to Santiago Martinez, senior vice president at 270 Strategies. Once outside experts enter the industry, they need to understand its culture in order for their skills to be applicable. That training is something that Democrats have excelled at.
“We’re creating a staff that understands and is knowledgeable in [data and analytics] and also what we’re trying to do offline,” said Martinez.
Another hurdle facing campaign tech, particularly on the right, is a fear of failure. It’s no secret the mindset in Washington is quite unlike Silicon Valley, which often prides itself on demonstrating that failure eventually leads to technological innovation. Risk-taking in politics requires pushing back against established consultants who have a rock-solid argument for their tactics, said Matthew Oczkowski, head of product at Cambridge Analytica: “When you win a campaign everything is fantastic – how do you fight back against that?”
Moreover, Moffatt, whose work came under scrutiny from many within his own party following Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, said the fear of failure among most consultants remains so high that too few strategists are willing to take a risk.
“Everyone rewards risk as long as you win,” he said. “If you take risks and lose, you’re an idiot.”