Why you should care
Because the 2016 presidential campaign is going to be a digital free-for-all.
Republican political strategist Patrick Ruffini has a way with timing. The tech guru entered the field in 2002, when Internet campaigning was still kind of a novelty. Nowadays, the Internet is a fixture, and so is Ruffini. He heads two political firms — digital strategy shop Engage and research analytics firm Echelon Insights — and continuing to nudge the Republican Party to modernize, reinvent and reconceive its campaign strategy in the brave new online world.
Ruffini, 36, sat down with OZY in his companies’ new Alexandria, Va., headquarters just a month before the November elections. Discussion points: the evolution of online campaigning, how the Internet magnifies personality and online politics’ next frontier, big data.
An edited version follows.
So when you talk about a candidate’s “digital strategy,” what does that actually mean?
It’s grown over the years in importance and size. Initially, it was just the young tech whiz kid building a website. You’d have the strategists and the pollster off in a room, discussing broad campaign strategy, and then two or three layers down it’s the digital guy, going to implement a small part of that strategy. Now that’s sort of on its head. A lot of candidates get defined online.
How do you help with that?
Engage is doing the digital strategy for a lot of different groups, everything from digital advertising to email fundraising campaigns to building technologies to help people identify voters. We’re fusing together the technology component with the strategy and the messaging. Our new polling analytics startup [Echelon] is about how to make smarter decisions about what actually matters to people. That means bringing some of the traditional polling to the table, but also looking at digital data analytics — who’s responding to what online, who’s searching for a candidate or issue, who is most likely to change their mind if contacted.
There’s been much discussion over the future of polling: Fewer people use landlines, and every once in a while, traditional pollsters really botch it, like in House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s re-election. What do you think?
If anything, the challenge for polling right now is to keep it from getting any worse than it is. But what interests me is what other data streams can we open up — about candidates, campaigns, issues — and how we use that data for deeper understanding. The traditional polling aspect — figuring out the right question to ask — is important. But it’s going to move to figuring out whether you’re listening for the right thing. Are you actually rooting out the most relevant sentiment? That’s a data challenge, fundamentally — to pick out the needle in the haystack from the social world, from the online ad data world, from the audience world.
The conventional wisdom is that the Democrats have the advantage on digital campaigning. Does that still hold?
More progress has been made [by Republicans] in this election cycle than in the last few, definitely. But to me the question about digital has been more a question of, do we know how to campaign in the 21st century? And that’s a question that goes beyond digital. I think if you’re not doing digital, or you’re not using data, you’re kind of out to lunch. You’re going to run a bad traditional campaign if you also don’t do the data and technology piece. The ultimate test will be 2016. You can’t necessarily assess in a midterm environment, where voters are not engaged.
Any Republican politicians doing really innovative things in campaigning or outreach?
[Kentucky Sen.] Rand Paul has been out front in terms of his outreach to the tech community and personal use of social media. You have [New Jersey Gov.] Chris Christie tweeting, too. That’s true for quite a few of the Republicans now. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in a campaign environment. Oftentimes you become really risk averse in a campaign, but when you’re not quite a candidate yet, you can afford to be looser with some of this stuff.
But the Internet is making personality matter more, not less. People running can use social media to showcase a personal side or their authenticity. We’re starting to see the candidates with institutional advantages losing some of their advantage. If you look at candidates from [Iowa Republican Senate candidate] Joni Ernst, [Nebraska Republican Senate candidate] Ben Sasse, or you can look at [independent Senate candidate] Greg Orman in Kansas right now, there’s a pattern where you have these relative underdog candidates emerging that seem to be younger, made for the digital era.
That sort of trend plays out regardless of party. It certainly happened in the 2008 primary season. The question is, will it play out again in 2016?