The glaring problem with “partisanship” in technology selection is that it’s almost always an excuse for incompetence and cronyism. Just because a software or voter list company claims to have the endorsement of the Democratic or Republican Party establishment does not mean it’s a good product.
Not once in my 30 years in the political technology business have I ever seen anything approaching a competent, objective evaluation of software or voter lists by any political party. Many of these people in the party infrastructure are my friends. I’ve known them for years and I admire what they do. They have a passion for politics. But evaluating technology is not their strong suit. It’s not their job. Campaigns should be skeptical of entrenched party favorites. And you shouldn’t be afraid to act independently in the best interests of your campaign. This is, in fact, your job.
Make no mistake about it. When software is selected because “it’s what we used the last time” or worse “it’s the only program we know” the assumption is that technology has not advanced for 24 months, or that there were no lessons learned the last time around.
Worse, when candidates are forced to use one partisan provider’s voter lists or payment processing or fundraising software instead of the ones their teams have selected, it’s not a victory of “innovation.” It’s simply a group of insiders throwing business to their friends.
When I hire a programmer, I evaluate the quality of his or her work. They need to be able to write brilliant code that pushes boundaries and gives our clients an edge. I give the job to the most gifted, enthusiastic, curious and competent jobseeker. If I imposed a litmus test requiring that they also hold certain political beliefs, I could not hire the best. And don’t we want to highlight the political industry’s best?
The employees working on software or voter lists at my company have only one thing in common, and it is not their ideological fervor. It’s their competence. To me, emphasizing partisanship when selecting a vendor means you are settling for less.
Don’t discount the value of independence and nonpartisanship. If you succumb to the pressure to go with what’s being thrust on you by the party in 2012, pray you don’t have a primary in 2014. You may not be red enough or blue enough for those true believers in control of the technology. They might conclude they prefer your primary opponent, as they certainly will if you are challenging an incumbent, or someone who has paid them well over the years.
How will your campaign fare if you are denied access to the party’s coordinated campaign data enhancements? Suppose those data enhancements, voter ID’s, social media contacts and personal emails that are being used by your opponent, originally belonged to you?
I have welcomed competition at the ballot box and in the marketplace for 30 years, but the future of political technology shouldn’t be driven by partisanship. If we truly want to drive innovation, party identification shouldn’t be a disqualifier.
John Phillips is the CEO of the political software firm Aristotle.
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; Political technology is best served partisan