One in every 625 people in this country holds elected office. They are our senators, members of Congress, state legislators, city councilors, district attorneys, and in Pennsylvania, they are our prothonotary.
Never heard of a prothonotary? Neither had Harry Truman, who upon meeting one in Pittsburgh during the 1948 campaign exclaimed, “What the hell is a prothonotary?”
Here’s the point: America is crawling with elected officials, and the overwhelming majority of them are partisans. When it comes to political technology, the campaign world needs to consider just how important that is.
This is my fifth election cycle working in political technology—a practice that hardly existed 15 years ago. Like any emerging industry where there is a significant market, a number of small businesses and entrepreneurs have been drawn to the field to capitalize on the opportunity to make money and promote their values through their work. It’s an intensely competitive industry and that competition has naturally bred innovation.
On the Democratic side of the aisle, our desire to win coupled with scores of politically motivated software engineers has brought the Party and the progressive movement incredibly successful for-profit, yet staunchly partisan and progressive technology companies like NGP VAN, Blue State Digital, Salsa Labs, Catalist, and my own firm, DSPolitical.
The bottom line for me is that when it comes to field and voter contact Democrats have been ahead of the game and even Republicans have admitted that. Why would we as Democrats and progressives want to cede that advantage for the sake of making a little more money? Our candidates want to employ campaign professionals who share their values, and that’s why the majority of these firms remain partisan, and why Democratic political professionals should insist they do.
The political technology field is still relatively new and whenever a new industry shows promise and money is being made, venture capitalists are quick to notice and search out promising opportunities for investment. Some in the political technology space have been quick to meet these new players with a ready grin and an open palm.
What these wealthy bankrollers fail too often to understand is partisan politics. It’s rare for a venture capital firm to willingly allow a company they are investing in to cut itself of from half of the market. That’s a mistake when it comes to political technology. The cultures of the two parties in how they raise money, contact voters and invest in their grassroots is sufficiently different enough that toolsets that are partisan are more geared toward the best practices of that particular party.
Let me be clear: there is a world of difference between political technology and technology used in politics.
You may use Twitter, Google Apps and Facebook during a campaign, but your Aunt Gertrude still uses them to post photos of her cats. Alternatively, political technology tools are designed expressly for use by campaign and political operations. There are few nonpartisan political technology firms that can claim the kind of success and influence on the political discourse that partisan firms have had.
Blue State Digital was created by the technology staff of Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign—one that saw the former Vermont governor credited with being the first to fund his candidacy with tens of thousands of small dollar, grassroots donations. It was a model President Obama would improve upon when he hired the same company borne of the Dean campaign, to handle his online efforts.
The fact that clients give firms their hard earned money and battle tested ideas for improving tools is key. Technology improves for all clients as a result. And with a nonpartisan firm that means ideas from the Democrats help Republicans and vice versa.
Of course, this issue is not unique to Democrats. Ginny Badanes, a consultant at the Republican firm CMDI put it this way: “The RNC is CMDI’s oldest and most consistent client. The investment they’ve made in us over the years has allowed us to produce high quality software that we are able to offer to other Republican campaigns and committees.”
The innovation stems from the desire to beat the opposition.
Now, I’ve heard the arguments against the partisanship of political technology. Good technology should be available to everyone to further democratize our discourse or to break the perceived elite nature of the two-party system. To me, those are arguments made by people who are either trying to maximize their profit in the political space, or they are arguments made by firms that are not as successful as the partisan firms. It’s an argument that I don’t accept because in this particular industry I simply cannot separate my values from my desire to make a living.
I like the fact that it is widely accepted Democrats are doing better in this arena. I want to hold onto that advantage for as long as possible, and I’m convinced partisanship is the way to do it. Oh, and in case you were still wondering, a prothonotary is the chief court clerk in jurisdictions in Pennsylvania. They are directly elected by the people.
Christopher Massicotte is a Democratic technology strategist who worked at NGP VAN for six years and is now a partner at the digital advertising firm DSPolitical LLC.
This article is part of a series of pieces offering 10 bold ideas for the future of political consulting. Read also: The future of direct mail is digital; The case for certified political managers; Money in politics: Time to embrace it; Challenging a new generation of consultants; Give candidates the ability to fight back ; How to deal with the black hole in political advertising