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.”
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.
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