The GOP Has a Tech Talent Problem It Might Not Solve
Scott Walker’s withdrawal from the 2016 presidential race last month was tough on staffers like Matt Oczkowski—as it turns out, tougher than he thought.
Back in July, Walker looked like a GOP frontrunner. Knowing how critical tech was to President Obama’s 2012 re-election, the Walker campaign invested early in tech and digital talent. It hired people like Mark Stephenson, one of the Republican Party’s top data scientists, to be the campaign’s data director. Darren Bolding, a tech veteran-turned political operative, became its chief technology officer. And Oczkowski, who ran the governor’s digital strategy for his re-election campaign in Wisconsin, was hired to be digital director.
“We built an organization that was built for scale,” Oczkowski says. “It was a big group of people who were all in-house.”
So when Walker’s funding dried up, and he announced that he was pulling out of the race, Oczkowski fully expected the whole tech and digital staff would be scooped up by another campaign. But that never happened.
For Oczkowski, that was sign—a sign that the rest of the GOP field isn’t building and prioritizing tech as vigorously as the Democrats are. “It’s what everyone should be doing,” he says. “It’s certainly what Hillary’s doing.” For the GOP, on the other hand, the tech talent appears to be spread thin.
Oczkowski’s fear that the Democratic party is outpacing the GOP in terms of tech innovation is not exactly a new one. The gap between the tech talent pools within the two parties has been the subject of debate ever since 2008, when President Obama’s election demonstrated the increasing importance of digital campaigning. The difference only became more stark in 2012 when Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s much-hyped voter targeting tool, nicknamed ORCA, suffered a total meltdown on Election Day. In contrast, the tool President Obama’s team had built, called Narwhal, has been credited as crucial to the Democratic win.
This loss in 2012 inspired the Republican National Committee to launch the Growth and Opportunity Project, a sort of post mortem on the party’s tech capabilities. One of the key recommendations published in the Project’s final report was that the party needed to be more aggressive in recruiting tech talent.
“More active recruiting on college campuses, providing internships and scholarships, and recruiting from commercial firms that may harbor talent with relevant skills sets is critical in providing the talent for future campaigns,” the report said.
And yet, two years later, as the presidential election cycle heats up again, it’s still not clear that the candidates have taken those recommendations to heart. While Jeb Bush’s campaign has recruited top Romney staffer Alex Lundry, who is now Bush’s head of data, the rest of the tech talent within the party is scattered among its many candidates, and technologists from outside the political world are hard to find. Clinton’s campaign, meanwhile, has managed to recruit the majority of Obama’s tech and digital braintrust, as well as tech industry leaders, like former Googler Stephanie Hannon, now Clinton’s chief technology officer.
“I can’t think of anyone on the GOP side that’s got someone as significant as Stephanie,” says Chris Abrams, co-founder of Lincoln Labs, an advocacy group for conservative technologists. “It’s not that it can’t be done. I just think the culture as a whole, it’s just liberal.”
Tech’s leftist leanings are often cited as the main reason Democrats have excelled in the tech talent battle. Some of Silicon Valley’s marquee names, after all—Eric Schmidt, Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Mayer, Sergey Brin, Marc Benioff, and others—are known Democratic supporters. And while a Libertarian strain certainly runs through the tech industry, San Francisco’s liberal values tend to dominate. As former RNC chief technical officer and Facebook veteran Andy Barkett once put it in The Washington Post, “I knew who was gay on my team at Facebook, but I had no idea who was a Republican.”
The Spoils of Victory
But for some, like Zac Moffatt, Romney’s 2012 digital director and founder of the digital shop Targeted Victory, that rationale doesn’t cut it. Conservative tech minds might be a minority, he says, but they do exist, and it doesn’t require that many of them to pull off a campaign. “I don’t need 100,000 engineers,” he says. “I need 100 good ones.”
Moffatt argues, instead, that the difference in the two parties’ ability to recruit tech talent is that one has had the benefit of winning the last two elections. “It’s a lot easier to work for Barack Obama than it was to try to convince someone to work for Mitt Romney, who they might not have known,” he says.
Obama’s incumbent status meant that members of his tech team, many of whom had already worked together and operated under a common philosophy, could get a jumpstart on building technology for the general election. Romney’s team, meanwhile, had to weather a primary cycle and ramp up almost instantly once he won the nomination. And though Hillary Clinton isn’t technically an incumbent, she’s been the expected frontrunner for her party since before she even announced she was running. The Republican party, on the other hand, has been splintered throughout primary season and dominated by unexpected frontrunners like Donald Trump and Ben Carson.
“I do envy the Democrats have had this six-year head start,” Moffatt says. “That’s probably the single largest thing we’ve spent time on, trying to create an engineering network of people who are either conservative or libertarian and willing to work on technology problems.”
Tech Takes Time
Obama’s 2012 campaign also led to a boom in new tech companies founded by Obama’s team, says Daniel Kreiss, author of a new study on digital, data, and analytics staffers in both parties. Kreiss says that between 2004 and 2012, the Democratic party hired nearly four times as many staffers in these segments than Republicans did. And those Democratic staffers went on to found more than three times the number of companies, though not all of them were in the tech field. Still, the Democrat-led companies that did pop up were able to recruit and train even more tech talent before the next election season rolled around.
“For a period of three presidential cycles, the Democratic party has been building this infrastructure and these reservoirs of consultancies,” Kreiss says. “They have a much deeper bench of talent in these areas that will be more difficult for Republicans to overcome.”
Kreiss notes, however, that since the loss in 2012, “Republicans are investing heavily in order to try to catch up,” he says.
And yet, it seems, there’s still a lot of catching up to do, which may be tough at this point in the cycle. This election season has already taken some unexpected turns, with the rise of unexpected contenders forcing candidates like Walker out of the race, and others like Bush to drastically reign in spending by cutting, among other things, staff and salary. For now, it seems the Republican candidates left standing are trying to run lean campaigns. The question is: what happens next summer once the party picks a nominee?
Right now, Oczkowski says, “the campaigns are lean and mean.” But that won’t likely be enough to meet the bigger tech demands of a general election. “You can’t just build this stuff overnight.”
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