The groundwork for the Democrats’ tech advantage goes back to Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential run. Dean pioneered the use of online organizing tools, and many of the alumni of his race are now key players in the party’s tech brain trust.
As the Democrats have pushed ahead, Republicans have been held back, some in the party believe, by the fact that GOP campaigns simply got access to a free and poorly-maintained database in the form of Voter Vault after they made it through a primary.
“Making it free very well could have retarded some of the growth and some of the experience of our folks who are really making the decisions on a campaign,” says David Flaherty, CEO of Magellan Strategies, a polling firm that recently entered the data market. Last cycle, the Democrats “had three-to-five people in every state who had the experience to get around a voter file, build a model and knew how to use data,” he says.
Republicans couldn’t match that level of expertise, and the infrastructure of the political committees was far too bureaucratic to allow real innovation to flourish. Skeptics say it might still be.
Lundberg, who is in the process of launching a new tech firm, puts it another way: “We’ve all been living, eating, breathing and shitting this stuff for the last 10 years. There are probably 2,000 people that I could hire right now from the Democratic side for a political campaign and expect a comparable amount of performance and understanding. There are maybe 20 on the Republican side.”
He was forced out of Salsa, Lundberg says, because the CEO installed by the venture capitalists, Scott Stouffer, wanted to steer the company into bipartisan waters. Lundberg, who wouldn’t be offended to be called a progressive, was considered surplus to that end.
“VCs have their own angle of what the best way to run a company is, which may or may not match with the political leanings of the [firm],” he says.
Stouffer, Salsa Labs’ new CEO, doesn’t want to call himself a progressive, but he says that won’t affect the company’s heritage or culture moving forward. “I don’t particularly find that relevant,” Stouffer told C&E in an interview shortly after he became the company’s new CEO. “[Salsa Labs’] mission clearly has a progressive bent to it, and we have no desire to change that.”
To do so would be a “radically stupid business decision,” one that would alienate a large, significant portion of Salsa’s client base, as well as employees, he added. According to Stouffer, the cash from venture capitalists will simply help the company adapt its product offerings. But Lundberg isn’t convinced the outside investors will ever adapt to the political environment.
“Most VCs, including Silicon Valley VCs, do not understand the world they are getting into when they lead into the political realm,” Lundberg says. “Politics is not like marketing or these other areas. These are people with 30 to 40 years of history who are the top people in their class that come out of school and want to change the world.” Exhibit A, he says, is the email Gilliam sent last summer that became a running joke in the online political community.
Equally hostile to Silicon Valley’s encroachment into the political world is Democrat Chris Massicotte. For him, it’s a question of values. “I can’t separate how I make my living from my values, and that’s what I feel like these other firms are doing,” he says. “I’m not saying that anyone who chooses NationBuilder is not a good Democrat—there are plenty of good Democrats using an alternative system,” says Massicotte, who worked at a pre-merger NGP before starting his own firm, DSPolitical. “It is a free country.”
When a campaign uses a nonpartisan firm, the data it collects on its supporters isn’t fed back into the party’s collective database. Massicotte pointed to the 2008 presidential primary, where then-Sens. Hillary Clinton and Obama both used NGP VAN data services, to illustrate why it’s a problem with nonpartisan firms.
“All of that data eventually flowed back and made the Democratic Party all the better for having that really great debate and primary. We’re just enriching ourselves with the data we already have,” he says. “Those [nonpartisan] companies are there to make money and provide political tools for either side and they don’t really care one way or another what the candidate’s values are. We care.”
Massicotte dismissed the notion that NationBuilder, which doesn’t consider itself to be political, could be classified as a software company, like, say, Twitter. If his firm were to go bipartisan, Massicotte says, it could cede the Democrats’ tech advantage to the GOP.
“Why would I cede that if I don’t have to? I want to win, and I want to win through any means that are legal,” he says. Bruce Willsie, president of Labels & Lists, maintains there’s little difference between the quality of partisan and nonpartisan data. “The only difference between the data that the Democratic National Committee or the Republican National Committee has is the specific coding on certain hot button issues that they have done survey work on,” he says.
The committees can predict if someone is pro-choice or antigun. “That’s the only kind of data that we don’t have. The rest of it we do have.”
Willsie’s firm provides television market-specific voter mapping and other targeting services. Business is good, he says, and getting better. “We had far and away our largest year ever last year. There are a great many candidates who do make independent choices and even some state parties that make independent choices,” says Willsie.
With the influence of the committees beginning to wane, it will only invite more competition and investment from Silicon Valley. “It’s inevitable,” says Gilliam, a former documentary filmmaker who received $6.3 million in backing last year from the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz and former Facebook executives Sean Parker and Chris Hughes.
Joe Green, who fostered the connection during his tenure as president, has since joined Andreessen Horowitz as an entrepreneur in residence. More money could be forthcoming for tech firms with eyes on the political market.
“Joe cares very much about politics, probably more about politics than the technology. And you’re going to see some organizing in Silicon Valley around politics, is my sense,” Gilliam says. “A theory of change that says you have to control access to the technology and only make it accessible to the people that you agree with—that’s closed and proprietary. In the software business, there’s pretty much nothing worse than being closed and proprietary.”
Sean J. Miller is a contributing editor to Campaigns & Elections magazine