Democrats Have High Expectations For 2016 As Their Tech And Data Advantage Widens

demfreudeThe last two presidential elections were decided in part by the Democrats’ superior tech and data infrastructure. While the Republicans have since invested in bolstering their own expertise, the Dems believe they still have the upper hand.

“Republicans who see our tools still say our solutions are much better than what they have on their side,” said Stu Trevelyan, president and CEO of NGP VAN, a tech infrastructure provider which works with the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to centralize liberal voter data.

He also said its impossible to separate the quality of the software from the political data and partnerships that come from the DNC and Democratic campaigns.

“The political technology infrastructure on the left is not only more collaborative, it is far more effective because it has been battle-tested up and down the ticket for about a dozen years,” said Jim Walsh, co-founder and CEO of the liberal ad tech firm DSPolitical. “The fact that we don’t have to worry about (sharing data across party campaigns) frees up innovators and technologists on our side of the aisle.”

Talent Acquisition

The Democratic Party “attracts a ton of good talent as many young technologists out there tend to follow progressive beliefs,” said Peter Bouchard, director of media sciences at Civis Analytics, a political data firm working with Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

While the Republican technology infrastructure is wracked by the same tensions dividing its voter ranks, the Democrats have assembled a powerful tech and data coalition – a web of vendors connected by shared political goals and, more tangibly, by a dense network of Google and Obama campaign vets.

Consumer-facing issues get a lot of attention when it comes to Silicon Valley’s liberal preferences – like Facebook employees donating to Democrats or supposedly curating news away from conservative media. But the biggest advantage for Democrats comes from companies like Facebook and Google developing engineering talent like a farm team.

What about Democrat vs. Democrat competition?

There are divisions within liberal technology but, unlike the Republicans, Democrats often see additive benefits from their challengers.

Bernie Sanders, for instance, wasn’t even a registered Democrat until late 2015, having secured his Vermont Senate seat as an independent. He may have leveraged a gap between Hillary Clinton and the more progressive wing of her party, but it’s all gravy for Democratic data.

Now that he’s running as a Democrat, Sanders uses the shared party data platform provided by NGP VAN and the DNC.

“The Democrats have had a sustained advantage over Republicans on data because of the collaborative model,” said Trevelyan.

Sanders has his own data/tech vendor, Revolution Messaging, but his campaign has injected the party with a huge wealth of data. Trevelyan said much of the fundraising apparatus and voter data the Sanders campaign has compiled is proprietary, but if, for instance, a Sanders canvasser updates a voter profile to reflect a change of address or a passionate issue for fundraising, those changes go out immediately to every Democrat, from state reps to town councils.

Part of what makes Sanders’ fundraising data so valuable is that it’s comprised of many voters not normally tapped by Democrats. That may have dogged Clinton in the primaries, but “she’s going to be grateful after the primary when all these new voters and natural independents are now registered Democrats,” said one Revolution Messaging source who requested anonymity to discuss internal data.

NGP VAN took a hit at the end of 2015 when Clinton campaign data was wrongfully accessed by a Sanders data operative, but even that contentious event underscores the unity on the Democrat side.

Instead of descending into a painful legal battle, as many expected, the Sanders team was allowed back on NGP VAN's VoteBuilder after a brief lockout and the Clinton team shelved its legal challenge. More importantly, Republicans couldn’t suffer a similar data breach because they have no analogous shared platform.

Clinton and Sanders field teams both use an NGP VAN mobile application named MiniVAN for data gathering and volunteer management, both use NGP VAN to house their data and both tech teams build products off of NGP VAN software.

Ted Cruz’s campaign, when it was active, volunteered some data back to The Data Trust, the Republican National Committee’s (RNC) closest equivalent to NGP VAN, but it’s very unlike the Democratic side, where the software is shared and valuable data is automatically absorbed by the central party organization.

Perhaps some Democrats will end up regretting how they’ve empowered their progressive flank. Despite influential Democrats like Harry Reid petitioning Sanders to deploy his data on behalf of other Democratic candidates, Sanders has very selectively doled out his campaign tech to like-minded, more activist candidates – Zephyr Teachout in New York, Pramila Jayapal in Washington and Lucy Flores in Nevada, for example.

Trevelyan described this as a benefit.

“We take what we learn each cycle and layer it on top of a foundation,” he said. Instead of a constellation of independent movement groups with their own vendors and siloed data, as is largely the case in the Republican ecosystem, Democrat newcomers still end up in the collective pool.

Donald Trump may have brought new voters to the Republican fold, but nobody turned those voters into a long-term data asset and there’s no time left to start from scratch.

"It would take them six months to build and integrate the systems," said former RNC CTO Andy Barkett in an interview with the Associated Press. Barkett’s timeline puts top-of-the-ticket Republicans on pace to deploy their campaign data by December, a month after Election Day.

Having candidates with sophisticated data operations integrated with the DNC and NGP VAN, is “mutually beneficial to one another in a way that Trump’s senior advisors who realize this stuff is important can only dream,” said DSPolitical’s Walsh.

“(Trump) probably won’t lose any sleep over the scores of Republican candidates he ends up hurting up and down the ballot,” he said. “I won’t lose any sleep either, so I’m not complaining.”

 

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