Political technology is still so new that some consultants can’t even agree on how it fits into the future of campaigns. Stuart Stevens, the former top strategist for Mitt Romney, wrote an essay recently arguing for more investment in campaign technology, while at the same time disputing its supremacy.
President Obama “didn’t win because he won the Facebook wars; he won the Facebook wars because he was winning,” Stevens wrote in the Washington Post. But in its recently-released report on how to move the party forward tactically, the Republican National Committee struck a far different tone. A commitment to technology across all areas of the party is critical, and Republicans shouldn’t be afraid to look to Silicon Valley to find it, the report concluded: “The RNC should strive to establish working relationships and open lines of communication with thought leaders in Silicon Valley to ensure the Party is at the forefront of new developments and trends in digital technology. The Party can and should play an important role in building bridges between its digital operatives and the best minds in the Valley and elsewhere.”
Steve Adler is among those who are skeptical the party’s internal culture can change. Along with Mark Sullivan, Adler was one of the inventors of the Voter Activation Network (VAN) in 2001. He sold his half of the company, which has since merged with NGP, in 2005. Five years later he founded rVotes and started trolling for clients after his non-compete clause expired. He says the big fish in Washington just won’t bite.
“I don’t want to sound insulting to the right, because they are my clients these days, or they’re intended clients, but they are so, so behind,” Adler says. “They don’t even know the stick that is beating them about the face.”
For data on the Republican side there’s Data Trust and Voter Vault, which is mostly derided as useless by consultants on the right. It only serves to underscore the need to build a more permanent data infrastructure. On the Democratic side, NGP VAN operates as a party-approved fundraising and voter database for Democrats. Catalist is another data player on the left. Then there are the nonpartisan data firms like NationBuilder, Political Data, Inc., Intermarkets, Labels & Lists and Aristotle.
In all cases, political data firms are marrying public data available through secretaries of state offices with other public records such as hunting or fishing licenses (it’s illegal to profit solely from the public voter database). In the case of partisan data firms, they’re able to add some much needed extra spice from the party’s internal records and the work campaigns do on the ground.
For Adler, partisan data is the way to go because it gives a campaign access to the collective resources of the party. “Here’s an analogy,” Adler says. “You’ve got two tribes in some country fighting with sticks and stones. If you give handguns to both sides, now you’ve equaled the playing field and it’s as if they all had sticks and stones. What good is it to say, ‘Hey, I just got this new handgun from NationBuilder,’ knowing your opponent on the other side of the aisle has just got the exact same handgun? It doesn’t really give you an advantage.”
Adler says he’s always wanted to play both sides. He originally wanted VAN to be nonpartisan, in fact, but Sullivan, a good Democrat, talked him out of that idea.
“This is going to be a weapon of war,” Adler recalls Sullivan telling him, “and you can’t sell the same nukes to the Russians and the Americans.”
NGP VAN’s technology is credited with helping Obama defeat Mitt Romney in 2012, but Adler says he’s not getting barred from the GOP honey pot because of his past party affiliation. “I was simply apolitical, I’m a computer guy, they know that,” he says. “The reason that the right has been so standoffish, I think, is because of the incredible iron grip that their consultants have on the data market as it exists on the right, and the fear that rVotes will revolutionize and potentially put them out of business.”
Aristotle’s John Phillips views the partisan technology and data market as nothing more than a bunch of insiders throwing business to their friends. Winning, he says, is about nonpartisan data. “When you go into the marketplace, if you’re a candidate, you can decide to purchase a product based on quality or you can base it on partisanship. You can’t do both.” he says. “Anybody that says you can have both isn’t being straight with the customer.”
Some candidates choose nonpartisan firms because they’re shut out of the partisan data market, either by price or party bosses. Phillips is quick to put out the welcome mat for them. “Our customers buy our data without asking for a permission slip from the Republican or Democratic National Committee,” he says.