September 19, 2014 6:51 PM
Leapfrogging the Democrats’ Tech Advantage
Azarias Reda, a 28-year-old data evangelist, on giving the Republican voter operation a radical upgrade for the midterms
By KIMBERLEY A. STRASSEL
No evidence exists that Francis Bacon made it to Ethiopia, but in a back room of the Republican National Committee building there is a lot of evidence that Azarias Reda absorbed one of the English philosopher’s more famous observations: scientia potentia est. The 28-year-old data evangelist is helping lead the effort to transform the GOP’s knowledge of voters into the power to win elections.
Republicans got thumped in the 2012 elections in no small part because of a voter-data failure. The Obama team crushed the Romney campaign and the RNC: on turnout, on targeting and in social media. Democrats are betting heavily that their operation will once again save the day—turning out enough voters in key states to save their Senate majority in November.
Mr. Reda, Ethiopian by birth, American by choice, was recruited by the RNC in November as its chief data officer. He and the nearly 50 data scientists and engineers he has recruited to an in-house tech incubator—Para Bellum Labs—are a mind-blowing sight at RNC headquarters. Hipsters in T-shirts and jeans wade through besuited politicians toward a digital room that sports rows of computers and dry-erase walls.
This room is where I met Mr. Reda last week and pointed out that Democrats are already ridiculing the Republicans’ big-data effort, claiming that there’s no way the GOP can catch the Obama turnout machine.
The comment causes the otherwise serious young engineer to break out in a mischievous grin. "I don’t want to catch up to a presidential campaign from 2012," he says, making 2012 sound like so last century. "What we’re doing here is what a tech startup would do in 2014. Data science has traveled a lot in just the past few years."
The RNC line is that it intends to leapfrog Democrats in the technology of turnout, and a lot is riding on the claim. Twenty years ago the GOP created the first voter "file" on millions of Americans. Democrats spent years catching up, only to get outpaced again in 2004 by the Republican innovation of microtargeting, which allowed campaigns to contact and turn out subgroups of voters.
The left then jumped forward in the run-up to 2008, creating a private outfit, Catalist, to serve as a data hub for the Democratic universe, harnessing the info of labor unions, activists, donors, campaigns. In 2012 the Obama campaign built on this by empowering its universe of volunteers with tools that let them use social media (Twitter, Facebook) to leverage this vast data store.
The GOP didn’t keep up. After 20 years and $150 million, the RNC by 2008 was sitting on the richest voter file on the planet but couldn’t mesh the information with its grass-roots network. In 2011 the party created its own outside entity, Data Trust, to serve as a movement-wide data clearing house. But the party failed to embrace the technology that would allow campaigns and volunteers to use the database. "It does nothing to have a big database with information just sitting there," says Mr. Reda. "You need to get it out to people, present it in a way they can use it, derive insights from it."
That’s Mr. Reda’s job. He moved to the U.S. from Ethiopia while in college, graduating from Sterling College in Kansas with degrees in computer science, applied mathematics and business. He followed that up by completing a Ph.D. in computer-science engineering from the University of Michigan in 2012. He did a tour at LinkedIn, and then moved to the startup world.
On a trip to Washington, he heard about the RNC’s data overhaul and was intrigued. "In Ethiopia, if you want to stay out of trouble, you don’t get involved in politics.
But I’ve always been surprised by how well it works in the States," he says. Technology is everywhere, he notes, yet "it hasn’t made it as much as it should in our political process. This was my way to work on something with real impact, and give something back to my country." He’s one of a trio of tech gurus leading the RNC’s new data shop, including Chief Digital Officer Chuck DeFeo, and Chief Technology Officer (and former senior Facebook engineer) Andy Barkett.
Mr. Reda is charged with making the vast conservative voter file "actionable" and "accessible." Actionable data, in Mr. Reda’s view, provides campaigns with knowledge of every voter. His team has focused on enriching its data—filling in thousands of data points on individual voters, from their age and geography and past election history, to what cars they buy, what services they subscribe to, what kind of house they live in.
Sophisticated data science and analytics will enable a campaign, says Mr. Reda, to determine individuals’ "political behavior, and what they are going to do."
Voters are categorized and sorted on all manner of attributes, thereby allowing campaigns to define specific "universes" of voters to target, and to apply the best techniques to persuade them. (Example: women between the ages of 35 and 50 who sat out the 2012 election but who are now worried about ObamaCare.) The files also assign scores to voters on such measures as party allegiance, propensity to vote and more.
The ultimate goal, says Mr. Reda, is to bank reliable voters in early and absentee voting, and then to quickly and continuously refocus resources on the next most persuadable set of voters.
Mr. Reda’s team takes measurements weekly in 22 states, calling tens of thousands of voters carefully selected as representative of the population. The team uses voters’ answers to specific questions to test its voter scores and models. The measurements have the added value of "tracking movement in voters’ views before they show up in the polls," he says. This information is fed back to campaigns, allowing them to adjust their voter targets based on shifts in voter sentiment.
All this knowledge is useful, but the real power comes from "accessibility"—where the RNC thinks it is breaking the most new ground. In olden days—say, two years ago—the RNC data team fielded calls from campaigns and outside groups with specific requests for specific voter data sets. Fulfilling these requests took huge amounts of time, even as the info became quickly outdated.
The RNC innovation is what Mr. Reda calls a "political app store." The tech team spent a year designing a common interface (think Apple platform) that allows any outside partner to design its own apps to utilize the RNC voter data. "We have to support a bunch of Republican candidates across the country, and each campaign is different—each with different sets of problems to solve. And we have partners that are focused on yet entirely different things"—such as fundraising, or surveys, or voter engagement. "Our infrastructure allows them to be creative, to build their own technology that lets them use our data in the best way for them."
Mr. Reda’s team developed the first app to demonstrate how it could work, but already the "people in our ecosystem are going far and beyond what we here would be able to build on the applications side." Dozens of outsiders are working on or have already developed apps, and two were innovative enough that the RNC purchased and distributed them to all state campaigns.
Both are "walk" apps. Campaign volunteers load the app on their phone and use it to pull up a real-time list of targeted voters, complete with a GPS map, and details and scores about each target. Door-knockers use this information. "Hello, I know we agree on this set of issues," Mr. Reda says, imitating an opening pitch.
Volunteers feed data that they get about the voter—answers to questions, or noting whether they’ve already voted—back into their phones, which immediately updates and enriches the RNC’s main voter file. Campaigns use that real-time data to update their targets, hone their messages and refine their Election Day get-out-the-vote strategy.
This real-time updating is meanwhile zipping across the conservative universe. Data Trust is legally allowed to work with any conservative organization as well as with the RNC. So the details that campaign volunteers collect on prospective voters are flowing through the RNC to Data Trust and to grass-roots canvassers—and vice versa. That data became immensely richer in August when Data Trust signed an info-sharing agreement with i360, the Koch brothers’ voter-data project.
The data are also flowing to Chuck DeFeo’s digital team, which is using voter information to refine its email and donation campaigns, and craft its social-media efforts. The Obama campaign’s use of social media to drive its base to the 2012 polls has become the stuff of legend.
But will the GOP be able to as effectively use social media as Democrats, given that many Republican base voters are older, and less tech-driven? Mr. Reda dismisses the point: "If you can reach someone on Twitter, reach someone on Facebook—great. The only thing that really matters is that you reach them." His team has put a particular focus on collecting data on how best to contact each voter—Facebook, email, cellphone, text, home phone, home visit, work phone.
He also argues that "it has been shown time and again in politics that the best contact is a personal one." The RNC’s walk apps are geared toward enabling the GOP’s extensive volunteer and grass-roots networks to turn real contact into votes.
Republicans know that the Obama team retains its extensive voter-data file and techniques. The GOP’s big bet is that the Democratic data remain geared toward the party’s presidential nominee in 2012, while the GOP’s emphasis on flexibility and innovation will give it the midterm advantage.
Mr. Reda’s broader goal is creating a new "culture" at the RNC, a startup mentality that keeps the data shop nimble, flexible and constantly innovating. That’s the idea behind the open-source approach and Mr. Reda’s extensive recruitment. "I don’t view our competition" as an Obama campaign "that doesn’t even exist anymore," he says. Instead the competition "is a startup desk in Austin, or in Silicon Valley, or here in D.C."
Outsiders give the RNC credit for boldness, though complaints remain that the organization didn’t kick this project into high gear soon enough. The RNC wishes that the effort were further along but argues that its infrastructure—enhanced data, pinpoint targeting, voter scores, the walk app—was already good enough to win the Florida special election in Tampa in March, when David Jolly won in a congressional district that had voted for President Obama twice. "We were able to predict turnout. We were doing the absentee and early voter analysis, and firing off the right set of emails to the right set of contacts," Mr. Reda says. "And it worked. It also gave us a chance to figure out how to scale this up to 22 states, and make it more secure, for this midterm."
So is he confident enough to predict what will happen in the Senate? He flashes another smile: "Let’s just say I think the Senate is going our way. We’ll see Nov. 4."
Ms. Strassel writes the Journal’s Potomac Watch column.