The man who built Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s privatized economic-development agency has a new project, one that not only is intended to aid the Republican governor’s re-election this fall but could give Kasich a leg up on the field should he choose to run for president in 2016.
Venture capitalist and JobsOhio founder Mark Kvamme and his wife, the former Megan Browning, are developing technology that can compile and sort massive amounts of information on millions of Ohio voters in a searchable database, determine which undecided or unlikely voters can be “moved” to support Republicans based on that information, decide how to allocate resources to move those voters, and track them to make sure they vote.
The undertaking, called Project Ruby, is being paid for by the Ohio Republican Party and will be available to candidates besides Kasich. The Ohio GOP has already paid FactGem, Megan Kvamme’s company created in May of 2012, $55,000 for its work. Documents online show Republicans budgeted nearly $1 million for Project Ruby; Ohio GOP chairman Matt Borges told The Dispatch that the project would cost “hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
While “micro-targeting,” as it’s called, is not new to political campaigns, new high-tech methods can make the difference in close elections by swinging small percentages of voters to one side. Kasich enjoys a sizable lead in polling over Democratic nominee Ed FitzGerald right now. But Kasich’s 2010 victory over then-Gov. Ted Strickland was by just 77,000 votes.
No campaign in history was able to micro-target through data analytics quite like Democratic President Barack Obama’s in 2012, when he spent millions to develop and implement information technology that not only helped him win key swing states such as Ohio, but also exposed massive technological deficiencies on the part of Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s campaign, the Republican National Committee and Ohio Republicans.
What the Kvammes are doing in Ohio is meant to not only mitigate whatever advantage FitzGerald might have with analytics — the Cuyahoga County executive has alums from the Obama team on his payroll — but it comes at a time when Republicans are trying to develop technology to catch up with Democrats. If it works in Ohio this year, it could conceivably work for a Republican vying for the party’s presidential nomination in two years.
“Consider Ohio a big test run for this project — if it works, it goes national,” said one Republican insider who is familiar with Project Ruby and asked to remain anonymous to discuss sensitive campaign matters.
In an interview, Borges said he first approached Mark Kvamme late in 2012 because of Kvamme’s background. The California venture capitalist, whom Kasich brought to Ohio in 2011 to start JobsOhio, helped shape LinkedIn, the social promotion site for business professionals.
Kvamme, who did not return messages seeking comment, left JobsOhio on Nov. 1, 2012, about 5 1/2 months after articles of incorporation were filed for FactGem.
The company is registered to Megan Kvamme in an online filing and appears to have products and customers outside of politics. Mrs. Kvamme, whose father, Gregory Browning, was budget director for Gov. George V. Voinovich, is now spearheading Project Ruby, Borges said. Her chief technology officer at FactGem is Clark Richey, who used to work at the data firm MarkLogic, where Mark Kvamme is a board member.
“What we’ve built, Democrats won’t have anything like it and I don’t think it’s been done before,” Borges said. “It’s a data engine that allows us to maximize our voter contact and information.”
The first part of Project Ruby is the database. Dozens of data points, such as when people vote, why and for whom, are collected, often through traditional campaign methods of in-person and phone contact. Those points go into the database along with other nuggets such as consumer habits, which can be purchased.
A third source is social media, which is combed for information on undecided or infrequent voters. Kvamme’s experience with LinkedIn is expected to influence that portion of the project.
All the information is used to determine pockets of “soft” voters who can be persuaded to vote for Kasich.
The project’s other aspect is a mechanism to track targeted voters and make sure they vote. The Romney campaign had technology for this in 2012 — called Project ORCA — that failed miserably on Election Day and cut off Republican volunteers from information they had planned to use to turn out voters in swing states such as Ohio.
FactGem has already developed an app called CanvasseR that not only is supposed to succeed where ORCA failed, but also is expected to help in the data gathering for part one of Project Ruby.
Ben LaBolt, national press secretary for the Obama campaign in 2012, said “analytics and technology” can “boost a candidate” but “can’t win a campaign on their own.” For instance, candidates must have enough money to reach the voters they identified through technology. Kasich has about $8.5 million on hand compared with FitzGerald’s $1.5 million.
There also is the head start Democrats had in such analytics, which began before Obama was elected in 2008.
“Everything we do is rooted in data,” said Meredith Tucker, spokeswoman for the Ohio Democratic Party, which touts the strength of a voter file that stretches back to at least the successful election of U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown in 2006.
“Republicans have tried and failed for years to catch up to our voter file strategy, so it’s no surprise that their goal again is to catch up this year. They might be able to build the infrastructure, but the competitive edge for Democrats is that we’ve been layering specific data onto our voter file, year in and year out, for over a decade. You can’t build that overnight or in one election cycle.”
©2014 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)