Political Ad Tech Is Growing Up, And Growing Claws

poltechIn the insulated world of political tech, market forces are insignificant compared to the capricious political winds.

Imagine, for instance, if Pepsi had to let go of a significant chunk of its engineering talent if it was outsold by Coke at the end of a four-year period. This is a practical concern for political tech vendors.

Unsurprisingly, how liberal and conservative tech shops respond to these problems is reflective of their party’s philosophy. Zac Moffatt, the digital director for Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign and co-founder of Targeted Victory, a leading Republican ad tech provider, has taken a private sector approach, building out an infrastructure to retain talent beyond the campaign.

“Ours is more of a market system,” said Moffatt. “It’s easy to come to the Clinton campaign now, or Obama (in 2012), because you know that’s the candidate and you won’t be looking for a job (after the primaries).”

There are fewer Republican tech companies, but they’re larger and tend to offer a more comprehensive approach, which is one way to keep talent and continuously invest in innovation when presidential campaigns aren’t stoking the fire. Democrats have developed a broader set of companies servicing specific channels.

“You have these gigantic firms on the right, like Targeted Victory, that do multiple functions, which on our side would be multiple firms,” said Eli Kaplan, co-founder of Rising Tide Interactive, a progressive ad agency. Kaplan sees this as a distinct benefit, and also “emblematic of the depth of talent on the left.”

It’s easy to forget that for essentially the entirety of this nascent industry’s existence, Democrats have had Obama in office. Moffatt described the effect as “a unifying force sitting on top of their system,” which risks destabilization if the party loses the White House in 2016.

The phenomenon also presents a “Microsoft problem,” if market control leads to a lack of innovation.

Kaplan agrees that there are issues for Democratic tech as a result of Obama’s winning campaign, but for different reasons. “A lot of the things built during the Obama campaign never lived past the campaign. … And now there are groups of people trying to bring that software back, because some sort of disappeared.”

“We’ll be here and be profitable and investing in the future when that campaign and team is gone,” said Moffatt.

The emphasis and need for profitability is itself an important distinction between the parties’ respective tech scenes.

“We don’t share or always play nice,” said Vincent Harris, the chief digital strategist of Rand Paul’s presidential campaign and founder of Harris Media, one of a few Republican digital startups that have gained ground in the past few years.

In a statement that sums up the party philosophy as well as the state of party tech vendors, Harris said, “The issue is that Republicans are very independent and not as focused on the collective as the Democrats. This does hurt the party.”

Republicans generally see out-competing their rivals (even from ‘the same team’) as an inherent positive. Democrats, on the other hand, have spent the past decade building a system that moves forward the whole even if it means sacrificing what in the market would be considered competitive advantages.

Two organizations cited by both Republican and Democratic tech leaders as shining examples of the liberal collective approach are Act Blue, a non-profit that scales technology and online payment processing for Democratic campaigns, and Catalist, a database that sources voters for liberal groups.

According to Nate Thames, executive director of Act Blue technical services, “We’re explicitly not a business, which is something the Republicans don’t have an analogue for.”

The closest conservative counterpart would likely be Themis, an effort by the Koch brothers to share data across campaigns in the same vein as liberal non-profits. Themis, however, is plagued by familiar problems.

The group operates in secrecy out of an unmarked office, and after the election, news emerged of rivalries between Themis and other Republican data aggregators.

As with many things in political tech, the issue may be one of philosophy as opposed to actual technology.

Act Blue enables campaigns to access and add to a shared database of user payment info. “What we found is people bail on the (fundraising) process whenever there’s a hitch,” said Thames.

“If they can give with a single button touch, that makes an enormous difference.”

And so Act Blue developed its frictionless payment processing, for mobile and desktop, which stores the data and simplifies donating. Not only are campaigns receiving the technology itself (developed before digital commerce buttons seized the attention of private sector platforms), they’re able to tap into a literal wealth of data.

Republicans can point to sweeping 2014 victories as proof that they’ve cleared tech challenges. Though few expected Wendy Davis (D) to win in the Texas governor’s race, Moffatt points to the Greg Abbott (R) campaign as being indicative of what political targeting tech can do for a campaign – beating and out-registering voters in specific communities where Democrats expected to make gains.

This, for both parties, is looked at as the defining next step in political outreach technology. “Political will be at the forefront of showing what audience-based segmentation is capable of,” said Moffatt.

Unlike private sector marketers, campaigns have access to what would normally be off-limits PII in the form of voter files. This enables a level of granularity that would have marketers licking their lips.

When asked where political firms are leading private sector vendors, Kaplan points to this audience targeting, pointing out that brands will be studying what they do to activate interested but inactive audiences across the biggest social media networks.

Brands may be competitive in a market sense, but they pale in comparison to the brute winner-takes-all competition of presidential politics.

Targeted Victory has begun identifying democratic primary voters who have little previous knowledge of Hillary Clinton, and is targeting them with ads about Clinton’s fundraising with anti-environmental activists.

When asked why Targeted Victory would choose an ad campaign that undercuts the Republican platform, which is hardly pro-environmental activists, Moffatt is succinct. “We have a message and an audience, like a brand does. Except we actually need to win.”

 

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