After John Kerry lost a very winnable election in 2004, Democrats were worried that Republicans had gained an almost insurmountable lead in both technology and data analysis.
"Progressive technology infrastructure was born in 2004, when we got our teeth kicked in," says Bryan Whitaker, COO of the NGP VAN, a privately held company that offers technology-based services to Democratic candidates.
"Back in 2004, we had no counter to the right's consistent messaging machine. Fox News, talk radio, Drudge, etc. put out consistent, never-ending messages, and the left didn't have a viable response to that," he says. "As we investigated ways to catch up, one thing we realized we should focus on is figuring out how to build up better grassroots efforts. The most persuasive way to influence someone is through person-to-person interactions, but how do you do that effectively, especially in off-year elections?"
The answer ended up being technology. The Democratic Party started building databases with detailed voter information, started deploying data analytics tools, and quickly saw the possibilities of social media. Those advantages gave Democrats an edge in the 2012 election, where technology was widely credited with helping President Obama defeat Mitt Romney, particularly when Romney's big-data-driven poll monitoring network, dubbed Project Orca, crashed and burned on election day.
The right starts to close the gap
After the debacle of 2012, the right has been playing catch-up. Its latest tech effort is Para Bellum Labs, which the Republican National Committee refers to as "a startup company housed in the RNC." Other Republican-leaning or Republican-sponsored tools include VoterGravity, which leverages mapping software from Esri to create more accurate voter targeting and volunteer walk lists; Data Trust, the right's Big Data tool; and i360, a rival Big Data platform sponsored by the Koch brothers.
Even with all of those efforts, the right is still behind in terms of technological know-how and savvy. And technologists on the right are often the first to admit this.
Ned Ryun, the CEO of VoterGravity, which bills itself as a center-right data-driven election tech platform, noted that culture is a big part of the problem. "The biggest challenge of the center-right is not talent or technology," Ryun said. "Our biggest weakness is a culture where important things like data and analysis are not emphasized. As a guy who's done grassroots campaigns in past and as a tech guy, as well, this worries me."
Tools like VoterGravity should help close the gap but only if the Democrats don't pull too far ahead with other innovations. One of the goals of VoterGravity is to eliminate what Ryun refers to as data loss. In this case, data loss refers not to the kind of loss associated with a security breach, but to all of the information volunteers collect when they interact with voters and then do nothing with.
"The way it typically works is you have people going door to door, taking down notes in the margins of their walk sheets, but then once they get back to the office, those sheets are just left on a desk for someone else to enter into the database," Ryun said. The reality is that those notes are only rarely entered into databases, so all of that actionable voter intelligence is simply lost. With tools like VoterGravity, volunteers can enter this information on the fly into their smartphones and tablets.
Democrats have been capturing data like this for years now and are doing everything in their power to extend their tech lead.
The left leads in attracting tech talent
As Northeast Regional Press Secretary of Obama for America, Michael Czin had a front-row seat in 2012, seeing just how important technological innovations could be to an election. Today, Czin serves as the National Press Secretary of the Democratic National Committee, and he is one of the key movers behind the Democrat's new technology platform, Project Ivy.
Project Ivy focuses on "four tools and strategies," a voter file and data warehouse, analytics infrastructure, field and marketing tools, and "training and fostering a culture that cultivates further technological innovations."
There's that term again, "culture." Fostering a culture of innovation may well be the most important advantage the left has in the tech wars. Czin argues that even if the right catches up in terms of technology, the technology itself will be "nearly useless unless there is a culture that values inclusion, expanding participation and the ability to use technology to apply those values to all levels of campaigns. Right now Republicans simply lack the technology and the culture to get the job done."
Whitaker of NGP VAN believes that culture has another advantage: the cultivation of talent.
"We [the left] are establishing a pipeline of talent that the right can't match," Whitaker says. "We attract technologists and data scientists from MIT, Harvard, Stanford, and all the top schools. We have progressive tech firms based in these cities, everywhere from Boston to D.C. to Oakland, California, and we know how to plug these people into campaigns where they can immediately start making a difference."
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Czin agrees with this assessment and also believes that the reason Democrats attract more tech-savvy campaign workers and volunteers is policy. Young tech-savvy people can be put off by the perception that right is anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-women, and pro-gun.
Another point Czin makes is how each side regards technology. "Republicans see technology as way to cover up deficiencies in policies or candidates," he says. "Democrats look at technology much differently. It's another tool, one of many, not an end in itself."
Tech only takes you so far
Anyone who tracks technology trends understands the pitfall of creating technology for technology's sake and not focusing on the problem that you're trying to solve.
"There's a dangerous perception on the right that if we build this great technology, we'll win," Ryun says. "People forget that it's only a tool.
Another tech challenge for the right, according to Ryun, is demographics. Many Republican volunteers and voters are older. Some of them downright fear technology, and if the people you count on for get-out-the-vote efforts won't or can't use the technology, what good is it?
Conversely, Czin and others on the left are hoping that technology and more accurate, data-driven voter targeting can help Democrats overcome one of their own biggest weaknesses in midterm elections: low turnout. Democrat-leaning voters tend to turn out in droves for marquee Presidential elections, but they then stay home during the midterms, which has a ripple effect. As Republicans rack up victory after victory at the state and local levels, they can arguably cede the White House for years to come and still have the policy advantage on the ground.
"That's a huge challenge for us, and we're hoping we can study the data to learn how to change this dynamic," Czin said. "We have historic information going back a decade or so in every state, and we're using that data to figure out how to make informed and educated decisions about whom to spend time talking to, and what we need to do to get our supporters to the polls."
"One thing we're trying to do not just through technology, but institutionally, is change voting habits," Czin adds. "If you voted in a Presidential year, you're more likely to vote in the next election."
That, of course, doesn't mean you actually will vote in the next election, but you're more likely to, and those are the people Democrats want to target.
A non-partisan platform could help "democratize democracy"
Even if the right is playing catch up in the tech arms race, it doesn't mean they'll lag behind indefinitely. Besides investing in their own data analytics, mapping, and targeting platforms, many candidates on the right are using the non-partisan platform from NationBuilder.
While originally developed as platform for political campaigns and non-profits, NationBuilder is now branching out to attract all sorts of organizations, from law firms to university alumni networks to restaurants. This could turn into a huge advantage as, say, marketing techniques coming out of the real estate sector are repurposed for political campaigns. The cross-pollination of tech innovation could lead to all sorts of techniques and tools that we can't even imagine yet.
NationBuilder is already impacting elections. Two of the best examples come from overseas. During the Scottish election for independence, both supporters and opponents of independence used NationBuilder, and the turnout ended up breaking all U.K. records at 85 percent.
The Scottish Independence vote was a unique election, but the huge turnout points to the most likely impact of tools like NationBuilder: it could well level the tech playing field.
Another, perhaps better example, is how NationBuilder helped a small group of grassroots organizers knock off an entrenched incumbent to elect an independent candidate, Cathy McGowan, to Australia's Parliament.
The most interesting thing about the McGowan election is that McGowan didn't drive it. The grassroots movement to replace incumbent Sophie Mirabella emerged first, and only after the movement had already gained momentum did it convince McGowan to run.
The McGowan election serves as a proof of concept for grassroots organizing, showing just how digital tools that simplify everything from fundraising to voter targeting to social media messaging can swing an election if leveraged to their fullest advantage.
Jeff Vance is a Santa Monica-based writer and the founder of Startup50, a site devoted to emerging tech startups. Follow him on Twitter @JWVance, connect with him on LinkedIn, or reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.