Meet the RNC’s New Digital and Data Lab! (And Listen to Them Say Data 102 Times)

The Republican National Committee recently announced their digital and data innovation lab called Para Bellum Labs. While most of the Internet was getting lost in the idea that Republicans named their new lab after either a gun or a war-before-peace saying, what was lost in the noise is that the GOP still doesn’t get how to structure their organization to optimally use data.

What is data as it pertains to politics? Most people don’t know that their voter registration is public record. Every state has different privacy laws about what information the public is allowed to see. Some states give birth dates while others only give a voter’s birth year. Some states make a voter’s race available while others do not. Some states tell you what political party a person is registered with while others do not. For your voting history someone can see what elections you voted in from presidential to municipal (but not who you voted for). Oftentimes you can also see what party’s primary someone voted in. Just off that information alone a data scientist can learn a lot about who you are.  If you’ve voted in the past four presidential elections I can assume you’re likely to vote in the next one. If you’ve voted in only Democratic primaries for the last 20 years then it’s extremely likely you’re a Democrat. These two data sets are the most important pieces of information for a political campaign and are the basis for almost everything else a campaign does.

How does digital fit in with all of this? On the surface you wouldn’t be wrong in thinking that a campaign’s digital department is in charge of their online presence. Tweets, Facebook posts, Instagram pictures, and SnapChat dick pics all come from there. There’s also a huge email section of the digital team that is in charge of fundraising and event recruitment communications. These are essential campaign responsibilities that can not only be optimized with the help of the data team but the results of these communications can also be fed back to the data team to get a better idea of what type of person someone is. When tweeting about a Women for Romney event, does a picture of Mitt or a picture of Ann yield more signups? Does a person whose first campaign event was a rally end up making more calls or knocking more doors than a volunteer whose first event was a phone bank? These are all questions that are answered with the help of the digital and data departments.

But there’s one area of politics that isn’t mentioned in this video and is the biggest deficiency in the GOP: analytics. The analytics team is in charge of taking as much data as is available to them and developing statistical models that drive every campaign decision. While the data department may be in charge of tracking how a campaign is doing with their phone banking goals, the analytics department is telling the volunteers who they should be calling to have the best chance at recruiting another phone banker. While the digital department may be in charge of tweeting out localized campaign messages, the analytics department is telling them which messages resonate the best with voters.

Republicans need to realize that you shouldn’t group data and digital together. These are two separate entities and should be treated as such. The person that runs the campaign’s Twitter account and the person that tracks a campaign’s phone banking data have completely separate responsibilities. While data and digital can work together to make online communications more effective, their link is no stronger than that between digital and communications shops or data and field departments. The point is that every department on a political campaign is essential and can each benefit from the other. You need the right organizational structure to make sure that a rising tide can lift all boats. When you have one boat that’s way bigger than the others, and that huge boat also has competing interests within itself, you’re going to sink faster than John McCain.

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