Alaska GOP tries to recover lost ground on tech front

Nathaniel Herz

JUNEAU -- The Alaska Republican Party is making a concerted push to catch up to Democrats in the use of technology and social media to identify likely voters and build support for candidates and favored issues.

With iPhone-toting GOP chairman Peter Goldberg as the chief evangelist, the party -- with support from the Republican National Committee -- is planning social media training sessions for leaders, and will be rolling out a new digital tool to help guide its volunteers on the ground to the voters they're most likely to sway.

The effort is aimed at closing a gap Democrats have opened over the last several election cycles, and it will play into Republican campaigns for local, state, and national offices, according to party leaders.

"We are building a database and an information system for every Republican candidate," Sharon Day, the co-chair of the Republican National Committee, said in an interview after her speech to state party members at their weekend convention in Juneau. "It's their tool to win elections."

Goldberg is a 65-year-old former software engineer who enthusiastically banters with Siri -- the disembodied voice housed inside Apple products. He acknowledged in his own speech Friday that the digital tools are needed to widen the Republican Party's tent and carry its message beyond "fat, old white people."

He's leading the way himself. He's already plotting a seminar for top party officials in the next few months.

"I want everybody to show up with their iPads and their tablets and their iPhones and their Android," he said in an interview. "And no one will leave that room unless they have a Facebook page and a Twitter account and they know how to use 'em."

The Republican effort comes after Democrats used their own digital tools to great effect in the 2012 national election, especially on President Barack Obama's campaign.

Obama's digital dream team -- which included former employees of Facebook, Twitter, Google and Craigslist -- developed specialized tools for online outreach, making phone calls and even figuring out how to spend as little money as possible on television advertisements.

A report on the Obama team's efforts, "Inside the Cave," is now required reading, said Mead Treadwell, one of three Republicans trying to unseat U.S. Sen. Mark Begich.

"This thing has become a bible for Democrats and Republicans," Treadwell said, displaying a copy on his tablet at the conventioneers' hotel in Juneau.

To respond, national Republicans hired a senior Facebook engineer last year to be the party's chief technology officer. One of his key roles has been building a new tool to manage the GOP's national voter database, though the Huffington Post has reported its release has been repeatedly delayed.

The tool is called Beacon; Alaska Republicans are expecting to get access to it before this year's election, Goldberg said. It's designed to give Republicans doing outreach on the ground better access to data that will help them decide which doors are most worth knocking on. (In the meantime, the party is relying on a different system called FLS Geo Connect.)

The tools, which tap into public voting records and data collected by volunteers, help campaigns understand voter preferences and leanings, said Taylor Bickford, an Anchorage political consultant who is the spokesman for the campaign to legalize marijuana in Alaska and who worked for the Republican Party in advance of the 2010 election and the state's redistricting board afterward. Bickford is 28.

"If you know you have a sector of voters that is not persuadable for your candidate or your issue, you don't waste your time talking to them," he said. "In the past, those sort of decisions were basically made on gut feeling and anecdotes, and figuring out which way the wind is blowing."

Republicans, led by strategist Karl Rove, actually introduced some of the same digital voter targeting techniques a decade ago, Bickford added. But they've since fallen behind, he said.

"The Democrats invested a lot of time and money into playing catchup, and they rebounded in 2008 and have maintained a pretty significant advantage ever since," he said. "It's turned into an arms race, and really smart people on both sides of the aisle will be fighting for control for years to come."

At the state level, former Republican Party chairman Randy Ruedrich, who held the job for 12 years through 2012, was known for managing and analyzing voter lists and recruiting absentee voters.

"We've done things they haven't even considered," Ruedrich said in an interview Sunday, referring to Democrats. "Some years it's been a shotgun operation, and some years it's been a very targeted rifle operations -- depends on what I need to do."

But Ruedrich also acknowledged that Republicans could do better with their outreach to potential early voters -- and, he added, the party's new tools could help.

As for the Democrats?

"We definitely aren't resting on our laurels," said Zack Fields, the state party's communications director.

He acknowledged that Republicans' current efforts could close the lead his party has opened in the digital realm, but he stressed that the Democrats were still working on "innovation" that he declined to disclose.

"Every year, our marginal advantage will narrow, but we'll still have an advantage," he said. He added: "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery."

Social media is the other component of the Alaska Republicans' technological push. Following training he said he received at meetings with other regional Republican leaders, Goldberg has embraced tools like Facebook and Twitter, and had a prolific web presence during last weekend's convention.

"I can tweet. I know what a hashtag is," he told a reporter there, though he admitted that his knowledge had only come in the last few months.

Goldberg added that he planned to use paid advertising on Facebook to get the Republican message out to more people than just the party faithful.

"If we're talking to each other, it doesn't do us any good," he said.

Trevor Shaw, an 18-year-old convention attendee who was elected to Ketchikan's school board last fall, said he'd been impressed by Goldberg's social media skills and by the proficiency of other, older party members.

At the convention, Shaw, who credited Facebook and a blog with building support for his own election, worked on a committee dedicated to campaigns and financing. One of its major recommendations to party members, he said, was to expand their use of technology.

While Republicans tend to be older and by default, less digitally savvy, Shaw said that the task of teaching them new skills is not insurmountable -- and he's interested in helping.

"I think it can be done," he said.

Reach Nathaniel Herz at or 257-4311.