An earthquake recently shook the political landscape. It overturned assumptions that go back at least a decade or more. Stereotypes and the status quo tumbled on their heads. Establishment types in Washington and Sacramento were shaken. The epicenter of that quake was right here in the Silicon Valley.
What happened? The Republican National Committee opened a technological office in San Mateo County — a county with 19 percent Republican registration and in an industry not known as friendly to conservative thought.
It goes back to the Romney loss in the 2012 presidential election. A rigorous RNC post-mortem, the Growth and Opportunity Project, dissected what went wrong. The report noted among other things that, “the president’s campaign significantly changed the makeup of the national electorate and identified, persuaded and turned out low-propensity voters by unleashing a barrage of human and technological resources previously unseen in a presidential contest.”
To counter that advantage, the authors concluded that the RNC must develop “a culture where learning and research are valued, information is shared, every form of contact is tested and measured and our talent pool particularly in the areas of data, digital and technology is expanded.” The result is Para Bellum Labs, just opened in San Mateo.
Chuck DeFeo, the RNC’s chief digital officer, said Para Bellum Labs (Latin for “prepare for war”) is a unique startup, incubated in the RNC that will “pull the party forward into a data-centric approach to campaigning.” Under his direction, that of Chief Data Officer Azarias Reda (formerly of LinkedIn), and of Chief Technology Officer Andy Barkett (formerly of Facebook and a resident of Redwood City), Para Bellum will utilize leading edge Big Data techniques to build a unified data warehouse merging voter, donor and digital marketing data with email files, social media profiles and other information.
To be clear, the Obama campaign, the DNC and their private spin-offs are still ahead in this game. But the RNC is catching up. They see Para Bellum and other efforts as being able to leapfrog the now legacy systems of the Democrats and their progressive-liberal allies. In a recent meetup in San Francisco’s SOMA, Barkett likened his efforts to that of developing countries going straight from no telecommunication infrastructure to ubiquitous cellphone penetration, doable since they had no legacy landline systems holding them back.
The key to the initiative is finding world-class data analysts and others willing to work in pursuit of changing the direction of the country rather than for stock options. In Silicon Valley, that isn’t so easy for the RNC. At that same meetup, Barkett recalled how when he took the CTO job he began having whispered conversations and furtive email exchanges with engineers who confessed that they too were Republicans. He said that in his group at Facebook it was easier to know about a co-worker’s personal life that it was to learn that she might be a Republican.
That’s why the efforts of people like Aaron Ginn, a young San Mateo techie who works at StumbleUpon, are vital to the success of the RNC effort. Ginn, along with partners Chris Abrams and Garrett Johnson (a Rhodes scholar), formed Lincoln Labs to bring center/right, conservative, and libertarian tech talent together in meetups and hackathons.
Lincoln Labs not only networks such talent, but it surfaces those coders, engineers and others who might be interested in joining Para Bellum, the RNC and their sister organizations. This role is critical, because as Barkett’s experience points out, it’s not easy being conservative in the Valley. Sometimes the hostility is palpable, so it’s hard to stand up and be counted.
However, as Ginn said, “I have done missionary work all-around the world, in friendly and hostile regions. To me, the Bay Area is a continuation of this service of my neighbors and my community. In the end, only people can change their hearts and minds on issues. I think of myself as removing barriers and trying to be a good representative of the issues.”
The technological edge the Democrats built allowed them to win key states for President Obama in 2012, and to win the 2013 gubernatorial race in a divided Virginia. Nevertheless, after a decade or more of technological lagging, the RNC’s commitment to change in both funding and personnel is startling. The Democratic edge will soon be gone. That’s a real political earthquake, and it’s happening right here in San Mateo County.
John McDowell is a longtime county resident having first moved to San Carlos in 1963. In the intervening years, he has worked as a political volunteer and staff member in local, state and federal government, including time spent as a press secretary on Capitol Hill and in the George W. Bush administration.