WASHINGTON –- Mitch McConnell does not seem like an obvious choice to help lead the GOP out of the digital wilderness it has found itself in when it comes to political campaigns.
The Senate minority leader most often emerges into the public eye from the floor of the Senate, formally debating Democrats in the chamber or dryly answering (or completely ignoring) reporter questions in the halls. Flashy he is not.
Yet McConnell's aides have noticed that the Republican conversation about catching up to Obama's data-driven, clinic of a campaign in 2012 is mostly focused on doing so by 2016. That doesn't help McConnell, who is up for reelection in 2014.
And so the attitude among aides to the fifth-term Kentucky Republican is that while some in the GOP are holding soul-searching panel discussions and others are fighting over who gets to control the data and the money in 2016, they're going to run a cutting-edge, digital-savvy campaign in 2014 that shows their party how it's done.
"We have no doubt the GOP will be ready for the 2016 presidential cycle, but in the meantime, we plan to set the standard here in our campaign and establish best practices other conservatives can emulate," said Jesse Benton, McConnell's campaign manager.
McConnell may not have a Democratic opponent yet; he has so far managed to intimidate a long list of Democrats from taking him on, all while avoiding a primary challenge from his right flank. But McConnell has struggled with a low approval rating. Some polls have shown him as low as 36 percent, though his aides point to other surveys showing him closer to 50 percent. And the fact that he is running a full-throttle reelection campaign is a sign to some that he knows he remains vulnerable.
So McConnell is bringing some relatively new blood into an establishment campaign. He has hired a small firm called Crowdverb to run his campaign's data operation. For digital strategy, McConnell is turning to Vincent Harris, a 24-year-old digital specialist who worked for Sen. Ted Cruz's (R-Texas) campaign and on the presidential primary runs of Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga).
Throw in Benton, the 35-year-old former campaign manager for former Rep. Ron Paul's (R-Texas) 2012 presidential campaign, and the message is clear: McConnell may be 71-years-old and look the part of a local chamber of commerce president, but he is taking an approach to personnel that embraces outsiders and innovation.
Crowdverb's co-founder, Cyrus Krohn, is someone who has been "largely ignored in Republican circles," Benton said. The 42-year-old Krohn is of the tech world, not of the GOP political establishment, said Josh Holmes, the 34-year-old McConnell adviser who runs the senator's district office in Washington and was Krohn's connection to McConnell.
Krohn, who is based in Seattle like Crowdverb co-founder Todd Herman, has done some work for the Republican party, in a two-year stint as digital director at the Republican National Committee during the 2008 election. But he fell victim at the RNC to "myth of the savior" thinking, one senior Republican digital strategist told The Huffington Post on background. The RNC, led by then-chairman Mike Duncan, expected Krohn to "work magic" but did not give him the resources or the authority to do so, the strategist said.
Krohn spent a few years at CNN in the early '90s before helping to start Slate Magazine, where he eventually became publisher. All told, he spent a decade at Slate, and then from 2004 to 2007 Krohn worked for Microsoft and Yahoo in the world of online video, primarily in politics.
"One of the things that has bothered me most about the political industry is that everyone knows how to talk a good game but very few do anything remarkable or unique. Nowhere is that more prevalent than the world of data and online strategy," Holmes, the McConnell adviser, told The Huffington Post in an e-mail. "Most of the people selling data-based products or online strategy to the political world are from the political world, which immediately disqualifies them in my view. I wouldn't hire an accountant to be our press secretary so why would we hire a political strategist to handle our data?"
"I spent about a year talking to a lot of vendors. Very few of them invented the technology, wrote code, understood data analytics, or applied algorithms. Most of them know politics and they have a widget to sell," Holmes said. "[Krohn] and his team invent technology, write code, understand analytics, create algorithms, and build usable dashboards. They don't write ad copy and they don't even seem to have an opinion on the political application of their findings. When you're up in the air it's really comforting to know that the guy flying the plane is a pilot."
Crowdverb is harvesting massive amounts of data from publicly available information on the web, in cooperation with its partner BehaviorMatrix, and using it to enhance the McConnell campaign's voter file, to measure public sentiment about McConnell moment by moment and to track how its different messages and tactics are impacting persuadable voters.
"What we're focused on really is the inherent need for dynamic data to complement traditional campaign tactics," Krohn said. "What can you glean from the live web to understand in real time, based on people's emotions, to get them to take an action on the campaign's behalf: opening an e-mail, making a donation."
Krohn gave an example.
"Let's say it's a Sunday talk show in Kentucky and it's a call-in program. All of the audio from that program is digitized for closed captioning. We're able to score what was said, gauge how it played with the electorate, and then determine what the implications were in terms of how people perceived that content via broadcast, and then respond," he said.
Crowdverb measures the response, in part, by "maintaining records of individuals who have publicly available profiles, and mapping that back to the voter database."
"We can say, 'We've identified that the comments from this program affected people emotionally in these ways' through predictive modeling as well as actual commentary, and that informs geographically how to communicate with them," Krohn said.
Benton said the campaign has "about 41 percent of voter file matched to what they consider a detailed online profile," which includes "things like social media handles, mobile phone number, preferred method of internet browsing, general internet activity, how people prefer to use social networks, and then also certain behavioral things or sentiment things about issues."
He continued, "This is what the Obama machine did."
That may be a stretch. The Obama campaign, according to Sasha Issenberg's reporting, began the 2012 election "confident it knew the name of every one of the 69,456,897 Americans whose votes had put him in the White House," and then worked to identify more potential supporters and recruited them one by one with individualized outreach.
If McConnell has 40 percent of the voter file identified, they may be on their way to doing some of what Obama did.
Benton explained how the real time feedback from Crowdverb will help the McConnell campaign monitor how the electorate is moving, and will then inform how to respond.
"Because the boss is always getting attacked, we're seeing a little bit more cycnicism about the boss than we'd like to see. They show us what they think is a critical level of cynicism that would start to hurt, and at this point in time we are below that," Benton said. "But if we start to see a cynicism indices indicate a rise and that would tell us there could be a problem there, we would try to encourage our netroots people to make phone from home calls to people where their cynicism indexes are rising … with a sincerity message."
That element of engaging grassroots supporters to influence their friends was a key component of the Obama campaign ground game.
Harris' job in running the campaign's digital strategy is not so much the harvesting and organizing of data as it is the promotion of the candidate through new media.
"Usually campaigns have a communications plan centered only on traditional media but Team McConnell believes in the emerging Buzzfeed culture: memes, web videos, and persuasion by entertainment," Harris said. "They understand that when given a choice, many people would prefer to look at cat photos than engage with their elected officials. So we're working hard to ensure the senator's message breaks through what has become a cluttered medium."
The McConnell team was eager to talk about their burgeoning digital operation, in an obvious attempt to project strength to potential opponents and hopefully keep the field clear as long as possible. Yet, it's not a bluff. McConnell, as always, is playing for keeps.