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Advice for how the GOP can close the technology gap by the next election

Thursday, November 20, 2008
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HH: You have heard me talking since the election about the “technology gap” that existed between McCain-Palin and the successful Obama-Biden ticket. How big is it? What is it? Does it even exist? Well, I have the three biggest wizards on the technology side now advising various Republican and conservative causes. To discuss that subject with me, in studio with me in Southern California, Rob Neppell. He is the president of www.kithbridge.com. He’s also one of the founders of www.porkbusters.com. Kithbridge is also a company in which I have invested. I tell you that in full disclosure. David All is in Washington, D.C. He’s the founder and president of www.davidallgroup.com. And Patrick Ruffini is the wunderkind of the GOP and has been for many years. He is currently laboring away at www.rebuildtheparty.com. Welcome to all of you. Let me start with David All, since I think you’re the oldest here, David, I’m not sure about that, but I’m going to say you are. Is there a technology gap? And if so, describe it for people.

DA: Well, I think I’m probably the youngest at 29.

HH: Oh well.

DA: But yeah, I do believe, I’ve listened to the folks that you’ve had on, Mitt Romney this week, and Jim Geraghty, and some folks who may not think that there is a technology gap. But I certainly do believe that there is. And very importantly, I believe while other folks are focusing on the message and how we can sort of catching up, and whether that’s a conservative message or a more moderate message to help broaden the party, whatever the case may be, I believe it’s the medium where we’re losing folks, because frankly, the message, no matter what it is, is just not getting out to the right people.

HH: Patrick Ruffini, does a technology gap exist?

PR: Yes. Very clearly…it’s very clearly the case. Obama is not President-elect without the internet. He would not have been the nominee without the internet. And had we had a much closer race in the general election, two, three, four points, maybe, had we not maybe had this economic crisis crop up, the internet and the youth vote would have been the deciding factor in the general election as well. He’s got a network of ten million people on e-mail that are now going to be called upon to pass his agenda. So every member of Congress can expect at a minimum a couple thousand phone calls when one of his bills comes up, because he’s built this huge network that he’s now going to unleash on passing his policy agenda. Beyond that, he went into cell phones numbers, you know, announced his vice presidential pick by cell phone. He’s got a database of six to eight million cell phone numbers. Some think, I would be surprised if Republicans have a database of six to eight thousand cell phone numbers. So that is a huge, those are huge numbers, huge advantages, and it’s going to have to be, I think our number one priority tactically, like David said, we’re going to have a rich, vibrant debate about what our message should be. But I think everybody…and there is going to be plenty of disagreement on that. But I think everybody can agree, in this particular area, in technology, is something we need to get serious about fast.

HH: Rob Neppell, I guess you’re the old man of the group, actually, as president of www.kithbridge.com.

RN: Lord help us all.

HH: …at 31 or 32. But that actually makes sense to me, and it’s why I’m talking to you three guys, is because it’s not something that the old guys know about. Is there a technology gap?

RN: Yeah, absolutely. I agree with David and Patrick. I think we are behind. I think it matters in terms of not so much who owns the companies. You know, sometimes you’ll hear folks saying it’s scary that Google seems to be run by liberals, it’s scary that, you know, all the tech firms coming out of the Silicon Valley are primarily run by liberal-leaning folks. That doesn’t bother me too much. What does bother me is not so much that there aren’t conservatives developing technology, although that would be nice, it’s that conservatives and conservative candidates are not necessarily skilled enough to even use it. And they don’t know how to use technology, and they don’t even know what they don’t know sometimes. So you’re at a point where we aren’t even at the point where everybody in the conservative movement, and everybody in the Republican Party recognizes that they should be using technology better. We’re actually one step before that, where people like David and Patrick and I have to go in and kind of convince folks that they have a problem before we can even start helping them solve it.

HH: Let me go in reverse order from the first round, then. We had some numbers from Patrick Ruffini in terms of Barack Obama having a ten million strong e-mail list, six to eight million strong cell phone list advantage. How else do you describe this advantage to the audience listening right now who say technology gap? What’s a technology gap, Rob?

RN: I think it’s across a wide range of different technologies and different things that we can be doing online. And unfortunately, I think we’re behind on virtually all of them. You’ve got fundraising, and clearly as Patrick mentioned, Obama had a masterful operation online in terms of using all the different ways to filter and suck in people to his fundraising network, and beef up things that way. You’ve also got social networking, which is a huge component that Obama again used very successfully, and that’s just a matter of a very effectively way to tap into the youth vote, a very effective way to connect with younger voters in a way that they understand. So you can go down the list of all the various different technologies that are being used online, and I’d be hard-pressed to name any of them that I would say the GOP is ahead in.

HH: Patrick Ruffini, I am trying to convey to the audience, we’ve got a few of them now, obviously, in terms of the social networking that Rob just brought up, the cell phone and e-mail. What are the other…describe the gap, because I don’t think you can get an audience of non-tech specialists to understand why it matters until they understand what we’re talking about.

PR: You know, I would say clearly, our turnout was down this time. Their turnout was up. And that made at least a two or three or four point difference. And what does that…people kind of wonder, scratch their head, and what does that have to do with technology? Well, when you have that strong of an e-mail list, you’re going to have more people volunteering for your campaign. You’re going to have more people donating to your campaign. The Obama campaign did a masterful job of not only collecting these volunteers through the web, throwing their campaign infrastructure completely open to them, and empowering them to go out and talk to their neighbors, so your job as an Obama volunteer wasn’t just to go out and knock on doors and talk to voters. It was to go out and find ten other people who could do the same. As a result, we were massively outgunned on the ground in a lot of these states. You know, Obama was running three or four times as many ads. He wasn’t doing it all online, but it’s a pretty good chance that the money that he was using to completely drench McCain in negative ads came from the internet.

HH: David All, is there another specific example of where we have a gap?

DA: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you brought up social networking. I think that’s one easy place to look at the difference. Barack Obama had over three million supporters on Facebook, and not only that, but they had created coalitions within the Facebook group, so it was women for Obama groups, and all of these different groups really tapping into that long tail in the Facebook community. But then they also transitioned that into MyBarackObama.com, which was their own social network that they created. And on that website, they had created over 500,000 users across the country, had created accounts. But the real important number is that because of those 500,000 people, they brought in eight million more volunteers to the campaign, and then those folks organized 30,000 supporter-based events throughout all fifty states.

– – – –

HH: Let me start with you, Patrick Ruffini. You actually worked at the RNC for a number of years. I first met you at the RNC convention in 2004 when I dare say we had a tech lead, Blogs for Bush and a number of other people out there working hard, folks like Powerline, folks like me. We lost it. Does the RNC have a chief information officer? Do they have on their staff the people that they need to get this thing started?

PR: You know, they have great people on their staff. They have an e-campaign director. They have a specific e-campaign department. But what I think we’ve discovered in this last election is it’s not enough to have somebody in that position and that title there. And it’s not enough to have its own department within the building and where they sit in the right meetings. Everybody needs to be the e-campaign. You know, every department, every…whether it’s the fundraising apparatus, whether it’s the communications apparatus, and whether it’s the field and get out the vote apparatus, needs to have an online campaign component to it, and they need to be aware that this is the new environment that we’re operating in. So at www.rebuildtheparty.com, there’s been a number of specific recommendations on that front. And you were right, Hugh. We were ahead in 2004. We did have, and I would dare say that the Obama campaign was a very effective, very effectively learned from that, built a lot of the same tools that the Republicans had in 2004 in terms of building a grass roots infrastructure on the internet. But what happens, and what has happened to the Republican Party overall is we’re in power, we get maybe a little bit too comfortable, and we get complacent, and whereas the Democrats were hungry for anything they could use to get ahead. And we got complacent in our tactics and the way we communicated to voters. And this election, you know, as tough as I think it will be for the Republican Party, does afford us the opportunity to rebuild and to rethink the way we communicate and the way we operate.

HH: Rob Neppell, at www.kithbridge.com, you have consulted with initiative campaigns, candidates and not for profits. You’ve also pitched a lot of candidates who said sorry, not now, I don’t really need to talk to you. Has that changed? Do at least the candidates realize now, and people running organizations realize, they’ve got to have an internet operation?

RN: I think it’s still an uphill battle. I think there are certainly a number of folks who get it among all the different kinds of organizations and campaigns, but there’s still a lot that usually you find people within campaigns, there’s always somebody who gets it, often, sometimes, several somebody’s. But the old adage of campaigns spending money on direct mail and just about nothing else is still pretty true. There is not a huge interest on the Republican side that I’ve seen to consistently invest money in new media and online strategy. I think that’s got to change. I think it would be nice if it came as a direction from the RNC and from the committees in that a relatively small investment from the centralized organizations could be shared across the campaigns and build some infrastructure that could be used across the entire party.

HH: David All, I’m wondering in your consulting, and again, you do the same thing that Rob and Patrick do, you talk to candidates, initiatives, et cetera. There are a lot of poseurs out there who really don’t know what they’re doing, and there are a lot of people who call themselves online specialists and internet gurus who aren’t really either. Do, is there a credibility problem out there between candidates and vendors?

DA: Yeah, I think so. I mean, I think Rob, Patrick and many others have kind of been a part of this discussion for quite a while. This isn’t the first time that we’ve noticed that there’s a technology gap and a problem that we need to solve. But it’s those people who are kind of posing, and who are getting a lot of business because they have deep entrenched relationships. Perhaps they’ve been with a candidate for ten years, and to that candidate, loyalty means quite a bit, and loyalty means more than a person’s efforts and talents. So when you look around at the table, I mean we’re all very young people. And traditionally, the people making decisions are most likely twenty or thirty years older than us, or at least ten years older than us. So I think that slowly, the more that we’re talking about it, Hugh, you’re doing a great job of asking the right question, and of course Patrick’s effort at Rebuild The Party, and Rob and everything he continues to do. I think it’s going to take a little bit more pounding on the drumbeat.

– – – –

HH: Gentlemen, time for some specifics. I have two that I’d like you to comment on. Number one, I believe the RNC ought to establish an approved vendor list, that is people who actually know what they’re doing in the world of online political campaigning. And then number two, the NRSC and the NRCC ought to announce that unless and until a candidate has retained someone from that list, they will not get a dollar of their funds, because they’re not serious. Patrick Ruffini, what do you think about my two ideas?

PR: I think there’s a lot of merit, and I think I woul say this, that it needs to be a wide range, I mean, obviously, we need to have competent people. We also need to have not the same people that, maybe the same people who’ve been doing this for years, have been working for the RNC and the NRSC for years, will certainly have a piece of the pie but they will not have the whole pie. And we will have real competition among our vendor pool, real competition and innovation. We’re going to have multiple people developing solutions and competing with each other to see who can develop the best solution. I’d love to see an X prize for who can develop the best way to mobilize volunteers, the best way to mobilize new donors. And part of our effort at Rebuild The Party is setting standards for individual campaigns, that the problem is there’s a lot of talk out there. There’s a lot of talk about, well, all right, you need to understand the internet’s out there. And I do think we’ve made a lot of progress in saying there is an internet and it’s out there. But there’s really not specific, hard numbers associated with, and specific hard goals. I do think that people respond to specific…that says you have to recruit a hundred thousand people, you’ve got to raise a million dollars online. We have to be setting those goals just as we would set a goal of you’ve got to knock on ten thousand doors, for instance. Until we do that, I don’t think we’ll see progress, and the kind of progress we would want to see.

HH: Rob Neppell, my two ideas, an RNC-approved vendor list, and a requirement no money unless you’ve hired someone from that list. What do you think of that?

RN: I think they’re great. I’ll go you one better on your first idea for an approved vendor list. I mean frankly, I’d just like to see a vendor list. I don’t think we’ve done enough so far to really coordinate amongst ourselves, certainly not anything from any central authority, to really just establish a map of the territory of who is doing what, who has what skills, what companies are conservative-friendly, so to speak, or in this space with an ideological bent that are on the conservative team. So number one, I’d just like to see that start. Number two, I’d add to your idea in that one idea I’ve suggested for, you know, actually several years now is having some kind of a conservative strike team that would be made up of people like Patrick and David and myself who could come in and talk to a campaign and say okay, here’s our bag of tricks. You know, David, here’s what he’s got, these are the kinds of things he can do, this is what I can do, this is what Patrick can do, and here is the tool kit of all the various offerings that we can bring to the table for your candidate, you know, online in a box. And that’s never going to be one size fits all, but having some kind of a consistent review process, and really a QA check that would be provided by a small team of folks like us, I think would go a long way to just getting a baseline of understanding and competence out across consistently with campaigns.

HH: David All, your reaction to my first two suggestions? I’m going around again and asking for others.

DA: Yeah, absolutely. I think what Rob just brought up about having like a strike force, I can only imagine me, Patrick and Rob working on something together and kind of really running at it. I mean, we look at some of the Senate races that are out there for 2010, and some of the very important gubernatorial races, and even some of the state legislative races, we have redistricting right around the corner, there is so many opportunities out there for everyone. Regarding an approved vendor list, I think that they already have it, it’s just that none of the right people are on that kind of list right now.

HH: Oh, that’s harsh. Expand please. But I agree with you, by the way. I think the RNC is cavemen age when it comes to understanding who’s doing this out here.

DA: Well, I mean, look. Me, Rob and Patrick, I mean, we’re just a few of the guys. There are other people, too, so I’m not kind of just saying that it’s us. But I think that if one of us every gets stale, I mean, if I ever lose my vigor, if I ever quit waking up and wanting to fight the fight every day like some of the people I believe that are still doing this stuff, or if I acted like I understood text messaging better than a twenty year old, or something in that case, I mean, I just think that there are vendors out there now who have just decided to do everything, and they do all of the business, and that’s fine, that’s market share, and they’ve built the relationships so well with the “right people.” But I think that we should always be trying to enlarge the pie that I think Patrick alluded to also, with having new people spring up from the ground.

HH: Patrick I want to be blunt here. I’m 52. I know this stuff pretty well, or at least I know who does it. And I have a rule of thumb. If someone is over forty, they don’t have any idea what’s going on there, and that number’s dropping because it just takes time to master these technologies, to have an I-Phone application up and running. I don’t think the RNC had one this time. I’m not being ageist, I’m just being a realist here. Do you agree or disagree?

PR: That means I guess we all have ten years to get the job done.

RN: Some of us a lot less than that.

PR: But you know, I think you’re right. Obama did have an I-Phone application, and it was developed entirely by volunteers. What happened was ten people got together, this wasn’t the campaign doing this, and when they released this, a lot of people in this space kind of wondered, gee, is this the best use of their resources of really niche market? But what actually turned out to be the case was that they, ten volunteers got together and the campaign openly embraced them. And there’s a lesson in that. The lesson is the internet is not something you control. The internet is not something you can have complete dominion over. It is a place where people can massively get involved in your campaign. I think Republicans, it’s not necessarily been a problem with technology per se, that they haven’t necessarily…they have great technology. It’s just they want to sometimes control it all.

HH: There might be a hierarchy problem.

PR: They’ve got to realize that this top down command and control model just doesn’t work anymore in the internet.

– – – –

HH: One minute each, gentlemen, summation on what has to happen and when. Let’s start with you, David All.

DA: Well, I’d take a look at www.change.gov right now. I mean, Republicans are sitting around talking about whether or not there’s a problem when we’re losing already to the Barack Obama administration. He already has six YouTube videos up from his official office with over 1.5 million views. I think it’s time for conservatives and Republicans to start effectively responding. I mean, what is the RNC doing? They have no response to this kind of stuff, and I think it’s time that we really start getting in gear now.

HH: Rob Neppell of www.kithbridge.com?

RN: I’d focus on one idea that I actually wrote a white paper about over eighteen months ago, which is I think what the conservative movement needs is some kind of a foundation or project dedicated to simply matching up good ideas in the technology space with the people who can implement them, and the donors who want to fund them. And there’s many ways to do that, but essentially I’m envisioning a marketplace where people with ideas of something that might help the movement could be matched up with people like us that can actually have the technical knowledge to do it, and also give donors a place that they can go that they know that their money can be put to this kind of use. I think trying to solve one particular problem is great, but setting up the infrastructure where we can have a collaborative way using the same tools we’re talking about using better to identify good ideas, filter them out, and matching them up with resources to execute on them would be a fundamental step forward.

HH: Patrick Ruffini of www.rebuildtheparty.com?

PR: We need to recognize that media is changing. Media is not top down and broadcast anymore, that increasingly it’s bottom up. But it’s also peer to peer, people communicating with each other. And once we change, I mean, I think we need to change our mentality in the sense that if we think we can control every single message that goes through a campaign website, we control every single thing that’s said about a candidate, which Republicans often think they can, then I think we’re not going to succeed. We are, remember, the party of the free market. We are the party of individual liberty and individual freedom. The internet should come very naturally to us. But I fear that we haven’t quite embraced that philosophy when it comes to the web and to new technology. And I think that this time in the wilderness will give us, I think, a perfect opportunity to do that.

HH: Patrick Ruffini of www.rebuildtheparty.com, David All of www.davidallgroup.com, Rob Neppell of www.kithbridge.com, thanks to all of you. I also want to extend an offer to you three and anyone listening, I’m about to come out with a book on the party and the direction it’s going in. I’ll put an appendix in there of vendors I think ought to be approved to talk to people. If anyone out there knows someone who is good at this in any segment, online, consulting, and tech communication, closing the gap I’ll call it, do send me their information. I’ll include it if it checks out at hugh@hughhewitt.com.

End of interview.

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