By: Eli Steele
The final death knell came for the Grand Old Party (GOP) machine on Election Night 2012. It went by with barely a sound as Republicans agitated over how the Democratic machine dominated despite a 7.9% unemployment rate, the unpopular Obamacare, and a profoundly weak foreign policy. In reality, the GOP machine never stood a chance; it was already on its deathbed four years ago.
The Romney-Ryan campaign fought hard. Yet its archaic machine of small government principles, the deliverer of many past victories, never dented the Democratic machine engineered by Silicon Valley minds to micro-target every last vote. If the GOP fails to build a new machine to surpass the Democrats’ enormous technological advantage, it risks a fatal marginalization within what could effectively become a one-party system.
In fairness, the GOP created Orca, which promised similar micro-targeting capabilities. Yet Orca failed so completely on every level – was it an app, website, or program – that the GOP remains on ground zero.
Since the election, debate has raged over what went wrong with the GOP effort. One side said: we need minority outreach and moderation on social issues. The other side: we must not surrender our principles or America goes down. The rational impulse is to let these factions war it out to some sort of consensus, and hopefully with time to spare before the election. But what if this impulse is no longer relevant in today’s age of technology?
A look back at the Obama campaign shows that trivial issues – Big Bird to Romnesia – got the most play. So much so, that the Republicans sneered at President Barack Obama’s lack of a national campaign vision. Their disdain peaked on Election Day when Obama took to the basketball court while the Romney-Ryan ticket personified hard work values as it blitzed through battleground states. In the end, Obama got the last laugh.
As he played ball that day, a technological behemoth of a program named Narwhal (after the unicorn whale) swam full bore ahead beneath the public eye and drove every last voter to the booths. There was nothing Obama could have said or done that would have made a difference. By his own admission, during the campaign’s waning days he had become a mere “pawn.”
Engineered by talent from Twitter, Facebook, and Google, Narwhal’s sole purpose was to reelect Obama. Its task was to create individual voter profiles by harnessing data on over 150 million potential voters that was spread across disjointed campaign departments. In doing so, Narwhal gave the campaign operatives the ability to move the campaign from the national and regional level down to the individual level, a feat never accomplished on this scale before.
For example, fictional David Adams, an independent, lives in Santa Monica. He receives what he thinks is a generic Obama email and moves to delete it when he sees “Israel” in the subject line. He opens and reads the email touting all the ways Obama supports Israel, including the Iron Dome defense system. David, who had been leaning toward pro-Israel Romney, shifts into the Obama camp.
How had the Obama campaign known that Israel was David’s hot-button issue and how had it known with such certainty to risk sending him such a targeted email? In 2008, David signed up on the Obama website with his name, email address, and zip code. In 2011, he chatted with an Obama outreach representative on various issues, including Israel, and left only his name behind.
In the past, a campaign would not have been able to do much with this information and would have sent David a generic email. Also, based on David’s ambiguous last name and a liberal-area zip code, a campaign certainly would not have risked a pro-Israel pitch on him.
Narwhal erases this ambiguity and minimizes potential risks through its ability to connect the website data with the data uploaded by the outreach representative to create David’s pro-Israel profile. This weapon gives campaign operatives an “in” on David and the ability to dialogue with him on his level, gleaning additional information to determine, for example, whether he would be best approached as a donor (and for how much) or as a volunteer. Come Election Day, Narwhal helps the operatives achieve the final step of ensuring via in-person contact, email or phone call that David voted for Obama.
During the Obama campaign, exchanges such as this example functioned as a micro-targeting campaign or more concisely, a micro-campaign, for one vote. Narwhal’s ability to scale to over 150 million micro-campaigns gave the Democrats the capacity to craft multiple messages for the many factions within the Party. They no longer had to worry about defining the campaign with big tent issues that may alienate one or more demographics. In fact, Narwhal freed the national campaign to dedicate itself to the assassination of Governor Mitt Romney’s character, a cause they knew they could rally all Democrats under.
Yet it is this unsavory strategy on the national level that may be precisely what leads to the Democrats’ downfall in 2016. Yes, they have a four-year advantage on the Republicans in the technology arena. Building a machine from ground up to close the gap is daunting but not impossible. It means outworking the Democrats who outworked the Republicans this past election. It means investing tremendous capital into both Silicon Valley brainpower and good old-fashioned canvassing manpower. And it means building this machine with a great sense of hope because the Republicans can offer on the national stage what the Democrats cannot offer: the promise of a rejuvenated America.
The state of America in 2012 was bad. From what has transpired since the election – threats of more government spending, layoffs, lack of growth plans – America will likely be worse in 2016. The GOP has no other options but to build a machine to take advantage of these dire conditions and pull Party’s multiple factions to its core. Such a machine would allow the grand principles of the GOP rise from the ashes of the old machine and guide Americans into the future.
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Eli Steele has worked in the entertainment business since graduating from Claremont McKenna College. His highlights include an award winning independent film titled “What’s Bugging Seth,” and a MTV pilot titled “Katrina,” that received the Breakthrough Filmmakers award. His latest project was born out of his time at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy: a documentary called “New Americans: Rise of the Multiracials.” With the birth of his two children, his family’s third multiracial generation, Eli began to wonder what America would be like in 2050 when multiracials will account for 25% of the population. Last year, he began his journey across the diverse American landscape in quest for answers to his questions. When Eli is not working on projects he enjoys family time with his kids and trying out the dining scene with his wife – his two current favorite restaurants are A-Frame and Yamakase.