App for That

Republican Campaign Tech Sprawls as Democrats’ Is Too Big to Fail

The two parties' different approaches to campaign tech closely mirrors their ideologies.

IOWA CAUCUS

A campaign sign for Senator Bernie Sanders sits in the rear window of a vehicle in Manchester, Iowa, on Jan. 25, 2016.

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

When Marco Rubio’s staffers dispatched volunteers on Sunday afternoon from his Iowa headquarters, a storefront office between a tailor shop and a nail salon in a suburban strip mall north of Des Moines, everything they needed to knock on doors was loaded into their phones. Rubio’s canvassers rely on Geo Connect, an app developed by the Minnesota-based company specializing in phone services, FLS, that had that Friday night been loaded with a fresh list of voters whom the campaign’s statistical models had identified as likely to caucus and still open to persuasion on Rubio’s behalf. Republican politics in the early-voting states are overrun with so-called “walk apps”—the perfect intersection of the tech world’s app fetishism and GOP campaigners’ rediscovery of the ground game. Each promises a digital upgrade to the clipboards that used to direct canvassers to pre-selected doors and guide them through interactions with voters.

But as befits a party riven on axes of identity and loyalties, Republicans are unable to agree on which app to use. Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Ted Cruz rely on an interface from i360, the data hub controlled by the political network associated with David and Charles Koch. The company that provides many of Cruz’s campaign’s data services, Cambridge Analytica, markets its own competing app called Ripon. Chris Christie uses Advantage Mobile, from the firm Bridgetree, while Rick Santorum depends on the nonpartisan NationBuilder.

In December, the Democratic primary campaign was wracked by the news that a coding error in a software patch to such a system, NGP VAN, had made it possible for Bernie Sanders's staffers to access data generated by Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Sanders fired the campaign's data director and apologized to Clinton during a debate, as the Democratic National Committee briefly suspended his campaign’s database access as punishment.

Republican techies looked on gleefully at the embarrassment the episode brought to a rival party that has for a decade considered itself superior in every aspect of digital electioneering. They could also be confident that they would never face such a crisis—but not because they are immune to coding mistakes. While Sanders and Clinton, along with Martin O’Malley, all rely on the same interface to access the same underlying data, Republican candidates are working off competing databases with a variety of different software platforms to access and manipulate them. If there were a bad patch, there would be no way for, say, a rogue Bush analyst to access Rubio’s data, because they operate in entirely separate technological ecosystems.

Indeed, amid the perpetual debate about whether Republican campaign methods have “caught up” with the Democrats’, it is becoming clear that the two parties’ parallel tech sectors are organizing themselves very differently. The Democratic side is dominated by large incumbent companies with near-monopolies, with the national party as a primary sponsor, while Republicans face a relative free-for-all with smaller players competing for market share within an already-fragmented primary season. “The competition on our side has yielded a number of good applications,” says Mark Stephenson, who developed the FLS Geo Connect app in 2010 but while serving as Scott Walker’s chief data officer last year arranged for his campaign to use Bridgetree.

The various products in the world of voter-contact software have a close familial resemblance. Like their low-tech predecessors, the apps usually contain a combination of geo-located maps, lists of individual targets, scripted dialogue, and entry forms for intelligence gleaned from those conversations. Many include a twinned interface for volunteer phone calls through voice-over-IP systems. “Rather than the hard lines, we install our call centers with iPad Minis,” says Dave Luketic, political director of the pro-Kasich super-PAC New Day for America, which like the Ohio governor’s campaign, uses i360 software.

It is a sector where competition for market share is driven by a mix of economic and political incentives. VoterGravity, a firm founded by Republican operative Ned Ryun that has struggled to win over presidential candidates, is trying to sustain itself through technology sales, while FLS uses the app to keep customers reliant on its other, more lucrative and scalable services like robocalls and fundraising solicitations. (Rubio’s deputy campaign manager, Rich Beeson, last worked at FLS.) The Republican National Committee recommends the FLS and BridgeTree apps for optimal integration with its GOP Data Center platform, while the Koch investment in voter-contact technology is part of an explicit effort to supplant one of the party’s core functions. They make the i360 app available only to those candidates and causes seen to advance the Kochs’ priorities, at a cost that suggests less interest in revenue than electoral returns. One presidential campaign was quoted a price from VoterGravity three times what i360 did for use of its comparable package, according to a campaign aide who asked not to be identified. Another campaign that chose the i360 app was reticent to speak about it for this article in fear of antagonizing RNC officials by drawing attention to dissident software loyalties. 

While Republicans can shop among a wide range of apps, Democrats have generated a single one, harmonized with its voter file, which is now too big to fail. The Voter Activation Network was first designed in Iowa in 2002, to help Democratic candidates for governor and senator jointly access common data through a desktop interface that allowed canvassing materials to be loaded onto Palm Pilots. Within two years, 11 Democratic state parties had contracted for its use, along with the massive liberal mobilization effort America Coming Together. By 2006, VAN was being used by 25 state parties, with bespoke versions customized for labor unions and other allied groups through the America Votes coalition. The next year, the Democratic National Committee decided to make it available to candidates nationwide, despite the fact that some state parties had pre-existing contracts with competing software vendors. The decision by Barack Obama’s campaign to run its expansive ground game off of what was affectionately known field offices as “the VAN” introduced it to a generation of lefty organizers; Obama’s subsequent installation of top campaign aides at the Democratic National Committee guaranteed NGP VAN’s primacy within the party. In 2010, VAN merged with the fundraising platform NGP Software, to create a behemoth that touched nearly every aspect of campaign data, including a mobile app known as MiniVAN. When programming errors last fall undermined its security promises—rival campaigns are supposed to be able to access a common database while keeping their proprietary voter profiles walled off from one another—the DNC was more public in rebuking the campaign that exploited the opportunity than the company whose ineptitude had made it possible.

Clinton and Sanders are now both back on the VAN, although it was unusual this past weekend to see her Iowa canvassers tracking voter conversations with anything more sophisticated than a ballpoint pen. It was not for a post-breach loss in confidence in the system as much as facilitating tasks for a broadening pool of new volunteers, many of them like the caucus electorate significantly older than the field organizers who train them. “We want to make the experience for volunteers the best thing possible, and so if that’s using paper or that’s using the MiniVAN app, people have been able to do both,” says Michael Halle, Clinton’s caucus director. “The tool that they’re using is less important than the way they were trained, what they’re saying, and the quality of that relationship they have with other people around them.”

Republicans still have a new-toy enthusiasm about their various apps, and find virtue in their balkanized marketplace, which they say reflects their confidence in entrepreneurialism and a preference for free-market competition. Among Democratic firms, Stephenson noted with satisfaction, “there’s less of an incentive to innovate.” (A company whose monopoly position is protected by a political party is a textbook example of the “crony capitalism” frequently attacked by conservative candidates and activists.) The primary-season winnowing of candidates should presage a winnowing of tech products. Some of the party’s intramural tensions may be resolved with the choice of a nominee, but its tech conflict will likely never be settled until Republicans elect a president who can install his or her preferred software throughout the party apparatus.

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