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  1. Florida Politics

Jolly's win proof Republicans are tackling digital challenges

Bruce Springsteen kept fans up-to-date on his motorcycle trip through Palm Beach earlier this month by posting pictures and comments on his Instagram account.
Bruce Springsteen kept fans up-to-date on his motorcycle trip through Palm Beach earlier this month by posting pictures and comments on his Instagram account.
Published Mar. 23, 2014

President Barack Obama's campaigns set the standard for the new era of politics waged by online tools and data slicing. And it scared the heck out of Republicans.

But the GOP is playing catch up, and leaders point to David Jolly's victory in Florida's 13th Congressional District as evidence.

"For us to come in when we felt a year ago we had been at a real disadvantage on the data and digital front and win this, is significant," Sally Bradshaw, a Florida operative who is part of a national effort to modernize the GOP's strategy and outreach, said Monday in a conference call with reporters.

Among the new tools deployed by the Republican National Committee was a canvassing smartphone app that provided volunteers tailored scripts based on what was already known about voters. The volunteers then used the app to send new information to a central database — the heart of the overall effort — which was shared for coordination with Jolly's campaign staff and other ground forces. The speed and efficiency were vast improvements, officials say.

Key voters were identified with a new "scoring" tool that incorporated far more data than before (how often a person votes, is he or she a donor, early voter, etc.). In turn, those voters were sent emails and other communication.

Better data also allowed the GOP to better identify and target early voters, who got notices through Facebook, email and by phone.

It's easy to overstate things about Jolly's victory. Republicans had slightly more voters on their side to begin with, as well as the relative unpopularity of Obama and his policies. Don't forget that some national Republicans thought Jolly would lose to Democrat Alex Sink — trashing Jolly's campaign at the last minute through anonymous quotes fed to Politico.

But the victory gives Republicans hope they are tackling the challenges. Coming up to speed on the digital/data side of campaigns was a major focus of the RNC's post-2012 election autopsy.

"We have a high degree of confidence in the technology," said Chuck DeFeo, the RNC's chief digital officer. "Obviously, technology matters but you've got to have the people who are doing the work and going to the doors."

Jolly announces staff

Jolly has made top staff decisions. John David "J.D." White will be chief of staff. White had been director of government affairs for WellCare Health Plans. Nick Catroppo, who managed Jolly's campaign, will serve as deputy chief of staff.

Buckhorn stays away

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a lifelong Democrat, made it clear early last fall that he was not happy with the prospect of Florida Democrats nominating Charlie Crist for governor. We figured he would have gotten used to the notion now that Crist has been in the race for several months.

We figured wrong.

In a Political Connections interview airing today on Bay News 9, Buckhorn made clear that he's keeping his distance from Crist.

"I'm not getting involved at this point. I've got a lot in the Legislature this year that we hope to accomplish. I need friends on both sides of the aisle," Buckhorn said in the interview airing at 11 a.m. and 8 p.m.

But he'll ultimately endorse the Democratic nominee? "I don't know," he said.

Keep in mind that Buckhorn could be a strong Democratic contender for governor in 2018. He would have a window if Scott wins a second term, but probably not if Democratic Gov. Crist were running for re-election.

Times political editor Adam C. Smith contributed to this week's Buzz.