By Joe Garofoli
Andy Barkett is a futuristic kind of Republican, a 33-year-old former Facebook and Google engineer who is a creature of the libertarian side of Silicon Valley.
The 2009 graduate of UC Davis’ Bay Area master of business administration program wasn’t even registered as a Republican before he got his new gig in June as the first-ever chief technology officer of the Republican National Committee.
Now he’s being hailed as a godsend to the GOP as he spends half his time darting across the country raising money to fund the party’s attempt to close its the digital gap with Democrats and the other half pounding out code in the RNC’s new San Mateo office.
But Barkett is finding that there’s a big difference between working at a high-speed tech company and the plodding, bureaucratic pace of the political world.
“One of the starkest differences between Washington and Silicon Valley for me has been the speed at which things move,” Barkett said last week in San Francisco. “At Facebook, there are signs on the wall that say, ‘Every day feels like a week.’ Meaning that you can have an idea in the morning, by that afternoon you write the code, and the next day you’re trying it out on 1.1 billion users. There’s not enough of that mentality in the political space.”
He’s been kinetic since being hired. One night last week, he was talking to Wisconsin GOP Gov. Scott Walker — whom Barkett admires for his tough stand against public-sector unions — and the next day he was headed to address a venture capital conference in Marin County.
During his travels, Barkett said, people tell him that “I didn’t want to give to the RNC, but I will help you.” So last week, the RNC rolled out a new Digital and Data Fund, where contributions to the national party will be earmarked for the improved use of technology to attract more votes to the GOP.
Already, Barkett is set to begin road-testing some of the new technology his fledgling team has created, both in New York City and in a place to be determined in California. One is a tool that would help campaign staff better target people when they canvas door-to-door.
Digital guinea pig
He envisions using the California Republican Party, which has new, tech-friendly leadership, as the digital guinea pig for many of the new ventures coming out of the RNC’s laboratory.
“In the few months since Andy has joined our team, he’s already started changing the way we operate here at the RNC — centering everything we do around data and technology like never before,” said RNC Chairman Reince Priebus.
“What we are doing is designed to leapfrog the Democrats by revitalizing our operations to benefit Republicans up and down the ballot for cycles to come,” Priebus said.
That leapfrog will be tough.
Where’s the talent?
“The question is, does the GOP have the talent pool to do this? It’s an unanswered question,” said Nick Judd, who until August was the managing editor of TechPresident.com, a nonpartisan organization that analyzes technology, politics and government.
While Barkett is confident that the new tech focus will make a difference in the 2014 midterm elections, he acknowledged that a big challenge is “lack of talent. I’d say there were maybe half a dozen really smart guys in this tech area within the RNC. We obviously need a whole lot more than that,” he said.
The other, he said, was a “lack of a connection between (computer) systems. There were all these systems out there, but none of them talk to each other. So people have all of this really valuable data about voters, but this system doesn’t speak the same language as another system.
“This is something I learned at Facebook. There’s a huge network effect in sharing that information. There’s a spillover. It’s valuable in ways you wouldn’t have thought of when you collected it.”
Divide between parties
Barkett acknowledged a digital divide between the parties. For one, Republicans “don’t have enough data scientists … a person whose primary skill is taking very disparate things — understanding statistics, some math — and be able to look inside this data and find something out about it” that ultimately will deliver more votes to the GOP.
But the Democrats’ digital edge is about more than technologists or technology, said Ethan Roeder, who ran the data departments for both of President Obama’s presidential campaigns.
“The biggest single advantage we enjoyed (in 2012) was cultural. It’s true that we had a much larger technology team, digital team, analytics team. But frankly, the reason that we were able to deliver votes on election day for Barack Obama was because the leadership of the campaign allowed the evidence — the data, the analytics — to inform the strategy. And that requires a leap of faith.”
Roeder said, “It’s a myth that all techies are Democrats. It’s just not true. The Republicans have money to throw at talent — at analysts and technologists. The real challenge there is cultural.”
The hidden GOP
Barkett, who was raised in Sacramento and now lives in Redwood City, agreed that there are plenty of Republicans in Silicon Valley. They’re just not visible yet.
“The Republican brand is in a little bit of the doldrums, I don’t think that’s unfair to say. Right now, even if you want lower taxes, even if you want a pro-business agenda, even if you want a pro-business immigration policy, it’s not that flattering to call yourself a Republican. You’re not quite sure what your friends would think.
“I was worried that I would lose friends when this announcement came out. But I didn’t. Not one,” he said.
He has a vision for what his new Silicon Valley GOP operation would look like.
“I want guys in rooms with pizza boxes working all night and feeling ownership over this project and feeling that we have to get this done now. There are some people in Washington who are like that. But that mentality of ‘let’s just dive in and solve this right now, don’t talk about it, don’t hire a vendor to hire another vendor, let’s just do it right now.’ That’s not prevalent enough.”
— Reach Joe Garofoli at firstname.lastname@example.org