WASHINGTON - Embarrassed by how the last presidential election exposed their yesteryear technology, Republicans are turning to a younger generation of tech-savvy social media experts and software designers to improve communications with voters, predict their behavior and track opponents more vigorously.
After watching President Obama win re-election with help from a technology operation unprecedented in its sophistication, GOP officials concede an urgent need to catch up.
"I think everybody realized that the party is really far behind at the moment and they're doing everything within their realistic sphere of influence to catch up," said Bret Jacobson, a partner with Red Edge, a Virginia-based digital advocacy firm that represents the Republican Governors Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Heritage Foundation.
Democrats began using related technology years ago, giving Obama a significant advantage last fall in customizing personalized fundraising and get-out-the-vote appeals to prospective supporters. With the blessing of party leaders, a new crop of Republican-backed outside groups is developing tools to do the same in 2014 and 2016.
Alex Skatell, former digital director for the GOP's gubernatorial and Senate campaign operations, leads one new group that has been quietly testing a system that would allow Republicans to share details about millions of voters - their personal interests, group affiliations and even where they went to school.
With no primary opponent last year, Obama's re-election team used the extra time to build a large campaign operation melding a grass-roots army of 2.2 million volunteers with groundbreaking technology to target voters. They tapped about 17 million email subscribers to raise nearly $700 million online.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, in contrast, had only a few months after a lengthy primary fight to try to match Obama's tech advantage. He couldn't make up the difference. Romney's technology operation was overwhelmed by the intense flow of data and temporarily crashed on Election Day.