Commentary Magazine


Is the GOP Digital Team (Still) in Denial?

In this month’s issue of COMMENTARY, Benjamin Domenech has an excellent article on the Republicans’ broken technological machine. In it he explains why the Romney digital team was unable to catch up to Obama’s record-setting digital team that many have likened to “Big Brother” in its scope.

Domenech contends, and I agree, that even taking the strength of Obama’s digital team into account, the Romney campaign didn’t scratch the surface of what they should have accomplished on the digital front. The issues of the Romney campaign were varied and are not only due to the failure of Project Orca. Domenech explains:

While digital efforts were the primary focus of the Obama campaign from the beginning, with data miners and tech gurus culled from Silicon Valley, they were a relatively late addition to the Romney effort. Its digital operation was staffed after the rest of the campaign, with an operation that seemed remarkably inefficient for a campaign that was supposed to do things with the rigor of Romney’s research-intensive firm, Bain Capital. There were plenty of people working on the digital side, but tasks were poorly assigned and hampered by restrictive approval processes. Romney’s staff was politically diverse and more used to the world of business than politics—some had never worked on a political campaign before. Frustration set in, then boredom, then Facebook-browsing. The quiet was deafening.

For digital staffers who recognized they were playing catch-up with the Obama machine that had never stopped building after 2008, the contrasts were infuriating. Where the Obama campaign’s content and emails were tailored to the interests of individually targeted demographic communities based on topics of interest and other data-mined priorities, Romney’s campaign didn’t even make distinctions between whether someone had given $5 or $500, or whether the name came to the database through a petition about health care or energy policy.

The campaign was also fiercely hierarchical, to the surprise of some longtime Romney staffers who found their ideas for innovation shunted aside by senior staff and consultants who were unapproachable and unresponsive.

Late last month RedState’s Erick Erickson had a stinging post on the incestuous and unproductive relationship between consultants and the Romney campaign, contending that a group of consultants were “the seeds of Mitt Romney’s ruin and the RNC’s get out the vote (GOTV) effort collapsed — bled to death by charlatan consultants making millions off the party, its donors, and the grassroots.” Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, it appears that his advice on the usefulness of these consultants has more or less fallen on deaf ears. 

Yesterday a “private” meeting (which was immediately reported on by sources present) took place between some members of Romney’s digital team and other major conservative digital strategists. It appears that many found it to be a positive and uplifting experience, and that discussing the enormous gap between the two sides didn’t overwhelm or discourage those present. Roll Call reported that “One source said the meeting was so positive that it was almost as if Romney had won.”

That attitude calls to mind the overconfidence that marked most of the Romney campaign, especially after the first debate. In Domenech’s piece he quotes Romney pollster Neil Newhouse, who announced boldly in a staff meeting, “We’re f—ing gonna win this thing.” The digital divide between the two sides is not insurmountable, but it should not be filling anyone in the conservative movement with anything resembling confidence either. The fact that this meeting left many leaving feeling positive is a worrisome indication that the consultants and strategists who underestimated their ability to compete with the Obama campaign are still living in an alternate reality. 

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