Political tech’s ‘arms dealers’

By Darren Samuelsohn
October 1

It might be hard to fathom in today’s partisan times, but some political technology firms don’t care if their clients are Democrats or Republicans.

Preaching bipartisanship, civic responsibility and just good old free-market American capitalism, a small but influential set of consultants is thriving off the growing demand for tech-savvy campaigns determined to find any advantage with potential donors and voters.

The customers aren’t from the middle of the road, either. We’re talking Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Democratic California Gov. Jerry Brown.

But spending money on goods and services from the political equivalent of Switzerland is hardly going unnoticed — not when the two parties are locked in a technology arms race for even the slightest new innovation that can give a critical 1- or 2-point bump on Election Day.

“I consider those guys just arms dealers,” Erik Nilsson, a Republican sales and marketing executive at the campaign software firm CMDI who has urged GOP candidates to stick with partisan companies like his.

Political operatives who give the independent-minded firms their business say they’re getting the best bang for their buck by buying the critical building blocks for success in a modern-day campaign: data to identify eligible voters, website designs and the ingredients for a solid micro-targeting strategy.

“Technology is neutral,” explained Will Adams, a spokesman for Michigan GOP Rep. Justin Amash, who last fall paid more than $11,000 for campaign software from NationBuilder, a Los Angeles-based startup founded five years ago by liberal activists but which caters to a much more diverse clientele.

Still, if the partisans had their way, every campaign would take a purity test using consultants who stay on one side of the aisle. Just as a PR firm wouldn’t represent both Coke and Pepsi, partisans bluntly warn against doing business with someone who also works for the enemy. They risk exposing their donor lists to other campaigns or just seeing a good idea sold down the line to a future candidate from the opposite party.

Democrats are especially sensitive to the threats posed by bipartisan firms as they cling to their sense of innovation superiority following President Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 victories, which benefited from a tech edge over Republicans.

“Technology is moving so quickly that any innovation that we do on the Democratic side we’d want to keep on the Democratic side,” said Gavrie Kullman, the digital director at the Democratic Governors Association.

Jim Walsh, the CEO of DSPolitical, a digital firm that works with Democrats, cautioned candidates against using a bipartisan technology company that has access to internal data showing all of its clients’ target audiences. In the wrong hands, he warned, the information could undermine an entire campaign.

“Politics at the end of day is about winners and losers. In our judgment, it is the ethical responsibility of a firm serving Democratic candidates to make sure they are giving them every possible advantage they could,” he said.

Independent firms insist they are trustworthy sources for the essentials needed to run a 21st-century campaign. Privacy and confidentiality rules are in place to keep each candidate’s data walled off from competitors. The firms also argue that the country’s biggest technology heavyweights, from Google and Facebook to Twitter, have had success working with both Democratic and Republican clients.

“Are all Republicans careful to use only the Republican post office? Do Democrats use only the Democratic Internet?” said Bruce Willsie, president of L2, a nonpartisan data and technology firm based in the Pacific Northwest whose recent clients include the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund Super PAC and Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.).

“My personal opinion is simply that party-specific platforms are a thing of the past,” added Kevin Hartz, CEO of Eventbrite, an online ticketing service that offers both Democratic and Republican political campaigns a user-friendly format for divvying up seating arrangements at fundraisers and campaign rallies.

Bipartisan firms complain that the Democratic- and Republican-minded competitors who are trashing their efforts are just trying to protect the bottom line — and they warn that brand loyalty can have consequences. Dave Helmreich, the CEO of the suburban Philadelphia-based bipartisan firm Audience Partners, recalled Mitt Romney’s widely panned presidential campaign technology effort that crashed on Election Day.

“We all know too well what happened in 2012 when decisions were made based on personal relationships and party affiliation,” he said.

“Partisanship is a selling point if you can’t sell on the basis of quality or value or client service,” said John Phillips, co-founder of the nonpartisan data firm Aristotle, a 31-year-old company. Among its clients this cycle: California’s Democratic governor, Moveon.org, Sarah Palin’s PAC and Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.).

Rusty Appleton, Inhofe’s campaign manager, said he gave his business to Aristotle because it bested the partisan GOP-affiliated competition in providing real-time data on the large number of Oklahoma Democrats that could be swing voters. The data also provide other useful insights, like which sportsmen in the state might be receptive to Inhofe’s message.

“In five minutes, I can find everyone with a hunting-magazine subscription,” Appleton said.

Plenty more partisans are willing to pay for campaign tools without considering pure party loyalty.

Amash picked NationBuilder because it folded together into one place several of the tools that his campaign previously had purchased from a variety of vendors, including email, donation tracking, payment processing and website design. McConnell digital consultant Vince Harris called NationBuilder “one of the best technology companies out there that is moving the entire digital space forward.”

And Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein, a NationBuilder-certified campaign strategist for Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), said the company was “simply the best option for our website, blast emails and tracking social media engagement.”

“It did what we needed it to, worked well and was affordable,” he said, while also dismissing questions about whether Rangel’s information or any feedback on his use of the site could get into the hands of Republicans.

NationBuilder CEO Jim Gilliam shrugged off criticism of his firm’s bipartisan work, which also flared up in 2012 after it signed a contract with the Republican State Leadership Committee. Then, Gilliam fired off an email to his clients accusing the Democratic technology heavyweight NGP VAN of spreading rumors that their data would be shared with potential rivals.

NGP VAN, Gilliam wrote, was “a corporation trying to preserve their monopoly on a market with anti-competitive and unethical behavior.”

“They have to attack us because we’re an existential threat to them,” Gilliam said in an interview when asked about his ongoing fight with partisan critics.

“We’re a software company,” he added. “We believe that organizing is like a fundamental skill that everybody needs to have, particularly in a digital world. There’s reading. There’s writing. There’s organizing. And there’s arithmetic. For us, being able to organize, it’s like being able to use Excel. It’s like being able to use Gmail. It’s like being able to use Twitter.”

Stu Trevelyan, NGP VAN’s CEO, countered that nonpartisan rivals like NationBuilder are unlikely to survive in a competitive political environment where close ties with one party typically pay off in a long-term customer relationship.

“They have a fundamental misreading of the market in the same way no one wanted to read George,” he said, referring to the now-defunct magazine founded by the late John F. Kennedy Jr.

Trevelyan cited several other nonpartisan or bipartisan political technology companies that have tried without much success to overhaul the market.

“If it takes you four years to get 1 percent [market share], then you’re not fundamentally disrupting the market,” he said.

For all the clients that the bipartisan firms have collected, their successes do come with plenty of caveats and setbacks.

Several of NationBuilder’s Democratic clients have been far from loyal. Cory Booker, one of its most prominent customers as Newark mayor, bolted for NGP VAN in his 2013 Senate campaign in part because it offered an automated function to generate Federal Election Commission reports, said Addisu Demissie, who served as Booker’s campaign manager. Rangel also uses NGP VAN for his compliance and fundraising database. And two of the Democrats listed as featured clients on NationBuilder’s website — Rep. John Carney of Delaware and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti — remain NGP VAN clients.

“There are sometimes imperfect choices,” said Milan de Vries, director of analytics at MoveOn.org. He said his nonprofit used Aristotle to buy a critical set of data on federal and state legislators — including the latest listings of names, addresses and phone numbers — because the information wasn’t available anywhere else. But MoveOn.org prefers to use partisan technology vendors when it has the option.

South Carolina-based GOP strategist Wesley Donehue said bipartisan vendors will also struggle connecting with clients because of the quality of their products. He cited his own experience in 2013, when he used NationBuilder while working as a digital strategist for Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli’s campaign.

“A lot of folks say it’s the best platform on the market. I agree, but that doesn’t mean it’s good. I firmly believe they can take the award for being the least sh—— of all the sh—— platforms. Congratulations NationBuilder!” he wrote in a blog post on his firm Push Digital’s website.

NationBuilder, he added, was trying to do too many things at once and instead urged it to “try to crush one thing and then move on.”

“I don’t know how the bipartisan firms can actually do it,” Donehue said in an interview. “People don’t trust them.”

Read more, here: http://www.politico.com/story/2014/10/political-techs-arms-dealers-111520.html