The Internet plays a major role in political campaigns now, and it’s difficult to analyze the 2012 and 2008 presidential races without concluding the Obama campaign utilized online resources more effectively than any Republican operation did.
One of the problems faced by Republican campaigns is that Silicon Valley tends to lean left, giving Democrats substantial support in a variety of forms from the big tech companies. There are plenty of great tech people out there ready to work for Republican campaigns, though. Recruiting them early and folding them into a well-organized campaign is essential.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s recently-launched 2016 presidential campaign was fortunate enough to land Chief Technology Officer Darren Bolding. Actually, he says he came looking for them, having read about Walker on conservative media sites, including Breitbart News, which he said he reads daily. He returned to performing technology work for the Republican National Committee and its Para Bellum Labs, after a very long absence from political employment, because he saw job openings discussed on conservative websites – a GOP recruiting campaign paying off through non-traditional avenues.
He told me conservative and libertarian ideas have penetrated more deeply into Silicon Valley than media coverage of the big names and their campaign support for Democrats would suggest. “Something like thirty percent of the vote goes to Republicans,” he estimated, “We may be an oppressed minority, but we’re there.”
Bolding described an underground culture of Silicon Valley conservatives who share their politics privately, with an eye towards keeping their careers on track. It sounded much like what Hollywood conservatives say about dissenting from liberal orthodoxy in the movie industry. Bolding thought one important difference was that in his industry, political leanings are less likely to curdle into personal animosity. “I have friends across the political spectrum,” he said. “I find having conversations with people I disagree with – that’s a whole lot of fun, and there are a lot of people who have different views than I do in Silicon Valley. I have hard-core liberal friends – and people who are just acquaintances – who, when they heard I was going to work for the RNC, were just excited about the opportunity, the problems I would be able to help them solve, the technology I would be able to help them work with.”
He thought there was “a very libertarian streak” in the highly competitive tech world, balanced against the large number of young people who work in the field, who not only trend more toward the Left than older demographics, but have now lived through their school years under a Democratic Administration. “People want government contracts,” he added. “There are people who might be inclined toward a very libertarian point of view who are able to take advantage of government grants. When we start winning elections, you’ll see more people will be willing to express conservative views, I think.”
“What I found was that when I was at the RNC, and introduced myself as being with Para Bellum, frequently people I’d known for a while in the business would take me aside and say, ‘I’m one too,’” he recalled, referring to the closeted conservative political leanings of old associates in the technology world. “So I think what we need to do is make sure people know how to talk to each other… I think we need to identify more people, because we are lagging behind the other side.”
However, Bolding was proud to say he would put his team at the Walker campaign “up against anybody.” He thought Day One of his online operation was “the most successful launch of any candidate this year, including people on the Democratic side.” He was particularly pleased with the Walker campaign website’s ability to handle the surge of first-day traffic with no downtime whatsoever.
The Walker team put “a tremendous amount of effort” into ensuring the campaign website would automatically scale to handle increased demand – a feature that will grow increasingly important as the campaign heats up, since it’s difficult to predict when campaign appearances, debate performance, or the news cycle will deliver spikes of interest in a candidate. “If it’s a two-minute burst, I have to be ready for it,” he said of inbound Web traffic surges following landmark campaign events. “If it’s a four-hour thing, or a three-week thing, I have to be ready for it all.”
Bolding also talked about efforts to recruit online volunteers, and even “open source” some of the Walker campaign’s resources to help grassroots efforts and the Republican Party, in addition to further refining the quality of those software tools through the magic of open-source decentralized testing and tinkering. He said some big public announcements along those lines would be coming soon.
Grassroots campaigning and viral marketing are more important than ever, as a well-connected community of supporters can react quickly to developing events, and seek out pockets of persuadable voters that a campaign’s central office might miss. “We are making sure that interested, engaged supporters and volunteers can have the maximum impact,” Bolding said.
Everyone in the computer world knows it takes a lot of organization to make digital anarchy work. Large operations can benefit enormously from swarms of far-flung users employing resources in innovative ways – that’s what the beta testing of software is all about. In the political arena, some theorize that ready access to inexpensive and effective digital tools could make it easier for outsider candidates with modest funding, and a relatively late start in putting a national campaign together, to compete with the big, polished operations.
Having watched each of Mitt Romney’s Republican rivals fail to capitalize on their moments in the spotlight during the 2012 primaries, I wondered if the opposite might be true – it takes a great deal of skill and organization to create scalable systems and equip grassroots supporters with powerful online tools.
While understandably reluctant to wade too deeply into a discussion about the feasibility of running outsider campaigns, Bolding did suggest it’s very difficult to compete without a solid infrastructure in place… but he also said it’s growing easier for interested volunteers who aren’t political professionals to put good online systems together, using organizational tools developed for general business use that grow less expensive and more powerful with each campaign cycle.
He mentioned the advantage of having access to big, public social media platforms such as Facebook, which handle infrastructure problems for all of their users… but cautioned that such general-use resources can only get a campaign so far, when the big moments of the contest arrive, and it’s vitally important to collect donations and data with lightning speed. The 2016 primaries should provide some interesting demonstrations of what campaigns with varying levels of funding, advanced preparation, and professional technology teams can do.
“I have a team behind me that I am very impressed with,” Bolding said of the Walker 2016 online operation. “I would put their skills and abilities up, not just against any other political team, but any commercial operation.”
He said that in the Walker campaign, “technology, and data, and digital are suffused throughout everything the organization does.” The tech people have an equal seat at the table with every other department of the campaign, and Bolding declared himself very pleased with the degree of faith that has been placed in the technology team, complementing his own faith in Governor Walker as a leader and presidential candidate.
He understands why Democrats worked so hard to take Walker out before he became a national threat, and believes they’ll regret their failure to do so. “I thought, you know, every dollar they spent on some other races that were very high-marquee but they had no chance in was just a stupid waste of money, because they should have been concentrating all their fire on Governor Walker. In my opinion, I think he’s the best chance we’ve got.”