Moonshots vs. Margins: A Key Difference Between Republican & Democratic Approaches to Tech

The DNC’s Matt Compton made a great side comment in a Netroots Nation panel on the evolution of campaign technology last weekend: Republicans want to see a moonshot, but Democrats are focused on winning the margins. What did he mean?

When talking about our Republican friends, Matt specifically mentioned the RNC’s ParaBellum Labs, launched in February with solid media coverage and a lot of Democratic heckling. The Labs’ goal, as Matt characterized it (and as I’ll support after having talked with some of the folks behind it), is to find technologies or technologists that will let them leapfrog the Democrats and achieve online dominance in one stroke. Ambitious!

Democratic online campaigners, though, have become obsessed with using data to wring every advantage out of the technologies we’re already using. New tools? Sure — but only after they’ve proved themselves in test after test. Otherwise, Dems focus on more-mundane tasks like building up the voter file through repeated voter contact and optimizing their use of the information it contains. It’s part of a culture of data, as Ethan Roeder once called it, supported by a vast ecosystem of tech firms, organizations and individual developers and strategists, all focused on using information to maximize the value of every outreach opportunity. Trench warfare, not blitzkrieg!

Can the Republicans achieve their “moonshot” goal of beating Democrats online? One consideration: if the silver bullet were obvious enough for a small group of conservative techies to spot it, wouldn’t SOMEONE on the Left notice it as well? After all, Democratic tech, online and grassroots staff must outnumber their Republican equivalents by close to an order of magnitude — the Obama campaign alone probably had more tech- and analytics-focused staff than Romney had staff…period.

Republicans would probably be better off focusing on the slow slog of training staff and volunteers by the thousands. At the same time, they can be building up data on the electorate by talking to voters one-on-one and developing technologies and procedures to use that data to target their outreach efficiently, effectively and repeatedly. It’s not sexy, but so far at least, this approach has helped the Democrats win close elections (see McAuliffe, Terry). Moonshots CAN succeed…but don’t forget that the first half-dozen probes we launched to the ACTUAL moon blew up or crashed before they arrived.

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