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Already eyeing general election, Jeb Bush builds data operation

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Months before the first primaries, Jeb Bush and his allies are building a data-driven operation to turn out voters in the general election much later — spending heavily on the assumption he will overcome his sluggish start and win the Republican presidential nomination.

It’s a strategy aimed at avoiding a 2016 repeat of the GOP’s glaring deficiencies in using technology to get their supporters to vote four years ago. But it’s already hit a roadblock.

Bush and his advisers have abandoned plans to link some of the technology efforts of his formal campaign and an allied super PAC by contracting with a single company. That firm could have provided both groups with the same data on the electorate from which to work — everything from names and addresses of voters to their hobbies and number of children.

The developments — the plans and the backtracking — illustrate both the ambitions and limitations of Bush’s 2016 experiment to expand the role of his super PAC beyond paying for television advertising and into work traditionally performed by campaigns.

Super political action committees, an outgrowth of the 2010 Supreme Court ruling known as Citizens United, can accept donations of any size. But they cannot coordinate their actions with candidates’ campaigns, which are limited to collecting individual donations of no more than $2,700 per election.

In 2012, the super PAC backing GOP nominee Mitt Romney essentially did nothing with its money but run television ads. The Associated Press reported in April that Bush planned to build his super PAC, known as Right to Rise USA, into an operation that would do much more. The super PAC’s data-targeting operation is the first clear sign of that effort.

Such data operations will have value as GOP voters select their nominee. But their worth will grow significantly in the general election, when the number of voters Bush would need to motivate grows from tens of thousands to tens of millions.

Before Bush formally declared his candidacy in June, his would-be campaign officials and those at Right to Rise had decided to use the same digital data provider, according to Bush aides and others familiar with the operations.

By sharing the vendor, Right to Rise would have had a good idea who the campaign was trying to reach — and could complement that effort or expand on it.

But several Bush aides and others familiar with the planning said campaign officials later concluded the setup would make it too easy for the two entities to trade information back and forth, and would have required a complicated firewall to keep the information separate. They spoke on condition of anonymity, because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the campaign’s strategy.

Right to Rise USA spokesman Paul Lindsay told AP that one of the group’s priorities is “to locate, persuade and mobilize both primary and general election voters using traditional and innovative techniques,” including via a digital voter tracking system.

Meanwhile, the Bush campaign has already used its data system to run thousands of tests simulating the primary elections in the first four states to vote and is building detailed profiles of voters, campaign manager Danny Diaz said in a memo sent last week.

The vendor the Bush team selected to serve both the campaign and super PAC was Digital Core Campaign, run by a former Facebook engineer and Republican National Committee official named Andy Barkett.

The Bush campaign has spent just shy of $140,000 with the firm for “web services,” according to a report filed last week with the Federal Election Commission. The super PAC, which is on a different disclosure schedule, paid the company about $426,000 for “database management” before July 1.

While the Bush aides cited concerns about illegal coordination as the reason to abandon the shared-vendor concept, two people familiar with the separation cited creative differences between campaign officials and Barkett. He is still working with Right to Rise.

They spoke on anonymity, because they were not authorized to discuss the developments publicly by name.

The Bush teams’ focus on creating a data system designed to win the general election reflects their confidence after jointly raising more than $127 million through the end of September. That figure includes the $103 million brought in by the super PAC in the first six months of the year.

They are mindful of the missteps made by Romney, whose campaign was far behind President Barack Obama’s team in building its voter outreach technology by the time Romney secured the nomination. At a retreat in South Florida for Right to Rise in April, donors were told their money would be used to create a sophisticated data and voter targeting operation.

“I think they were aggressive in what they did,” said Bill Kunkler, a Chicago-area private equity company executive and Bush donor. “But I can see if they were getting into a gray area that they would back off.”

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

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