The digital battleground

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Why the online political world can be downright nasty


On a recent Friday morning, Jim Gilliam stepped into a glass conference room overlooking Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles and set his things down on the reclaimed-wood table. Dressed in a faded t-shirt and green hoodie, Gilliam doesn’t look like the head of a political consulting firm, which he insists he isn’t.

“We are not a consulting company,” he says. “We’re software.”

The day before, Gilliam had driven back from Mountain View to Los Angeles—flying is too hard on his respiratory system—after giving a talk at Google Ventures, the software company’s venture capital arm. The Kevin Rose-hosted forum previously featured other software entrepreneurs like Twitter founder Jack Dorsey and Kevin Systrom (the creator of Instagram).

Gilliam, whose company counts politicians and consultants among its clients, was now in their league, invited to tell the story of how he came to found NationBuilder, an online organizing services provider. The audience, used to hearing about tech world start-ups, was told something novel: there’s opportunity in politics.

“The reality is that Silicon Valley thinks politics is kind of silly,” Gilliam says. “I think that’s why it’s been ignored for so long. It’s just been looked at as a small market and it’s just not that interesting.”

But Silicon Valley is now starting to come around, and the result is an emerging culture clash with the average Washington-based political consultant—even the younger, tech-savvy version. Venture capital firms smell a profit in political technology and are betting millions on the future of the industry. Their entry into political niches such as voter file analysis and voter data delivery markets raises new questions about the future of partisan technology, which for years has been the way many in Washington prefer to treat their tech infrastructure and data—select companies operate with the blessing of their parties. Silicon Valley has a different way of doing business; it savors openness.

“Because the voter data has been so controlled and used for partisan purposes, an ecosystem has not been allowed to develop around that data,” says Gilliam. “We are just getting started with enabling that kind of an economy system.”

It’s an ecosystem that’s starting to resemble a jungle. Technology used to be an afterthought in campaigns, which for the second half of the 20th century were built on voter contact through TV and radio advertising and direct mail. It wasn’t until the 21st century that political data firms became integral to campaigns. Political tech’s new prominence has attracted big personalities—Business Insider recently published a list of the “50 Hottest People in Online Politics,” and tech consultants are in demand. Mix that with a political consulting world where competition is increasingly fierce and personalities will clash.

In many ways, online politics is the Wild West, and the tech consultants whose voices are the loudest aren’t always the ones with the bulk of the campaign work—a frequent complaint from tech consultants, particularly on the right. But in the political technology world, the reality is that big personalities have been clashing for years. Take the bitter legal battle between John Phillips of Aristotle and Nathaniel Pearlman of NGP VAN. It officially ended in 2011, but people familiar with both companies say the animosity persists. As two of the leading firms in the political technology universe, the personality clash enters into the equation as much as the clash over potential business.

In other parts of the political tech world, the partisan versus nonpartisan conflict is dominant. For partisan vendors, Salsa Labs has become a cautionary tale in the potential danger of taking venture capital money. Edison Ventures invested $5 million in Salsa, which had carved out a reputation as a software provider to progressive campaigns and causes. The company’s new board of directors later voted to oust CEO Chris Lundberg. It also led to Salsa co-founder April Pedersen leaving her board position in the company.

In the wake of the move, Pedersen penned an email to Salsa staff lamenting the company’s decision to accept venture capital and openly wondering whether it was only a matter of time before Salsa began accepting “right-wing” candidates or groups as clients. Salsa pledges it won’t, but it’s symbolic of the culture clash between Silicon Valley and Washington advocates.

Gilliam and NationBuilder have had their own clashes with partisan technology providers. Gilliam’s gripe with NGP VAN went public last summer after he sent an email accusing NGP VAN of harassing his customers. Gilliam wrote, “NGP VAN is both lying to and bullying some of the Democratic candidates using NationBuilder … This is appalling, and we want to make sure our customers know the truth.” In response, NGP VAN CEO Stu Trevelyan said Gilliam was doing nothing more than trying to manufacture a fight with his company “possibly as a means of marketing NationBuilder.”

The political consulting world’s reaction to Gilliam’s gripe, at least according to former Salsa CEO Chris Lundberg— nothing more than “rookie politics.”

“Everyone in the political world laughed,” Lundberg says. “So you guys are scared of lies? You think the sharks live in Silicon Valley? No, no. The sharks are in politics.”


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