The RNC Hopes This App Will Keep Campaigns From Going All In With the Koch Brothers
A new software product to be unveiled Tuesday by the Republican National Committee’s chief technology officer presents an entire toolkit for helping campaigns manage their field operations—from automated reports measuring the relative effectiveness of individual volunteers to fraud-detection tools methods for detecting who among them might be lying about on how many doors they knocked.
The product, Republic VX, has one major feature that will go unadvertised to the general public but will likely be particularly appealing to the RNC members who gather in Cleveland later this week for their summer meeting. Republic VX is designed in such a way that should make the campaigns using it reliant on the RNC’s voter file rather than one offered by i360, a rival data warehouse that is part of a parallel infrastructure developed by Charles and David Koch.
The company behind the software, Republic Computer Science, which is owned by a private start-up founded by party technology chief Azarias Reda, already claims the RNC as a “pilot client.” The arrangement all but ensures the software will be deployed to the party’s coordinated campaigns during next year’s general-election season. It represents the RNC’s latest step toward delivering on the promise of “marrying grassroots politics with technology and analytics,” as the Growth and Opportunity Project post-mortem commissioned by Chairman Reince Priebus described one of the areas where the party proved incompetent in 2012.
Reda’s hiring as chief data officer the following year was held up as an example of the RNC’s newfound seriousness about improving those systems. His résumé (LinkedIn, start-up Meritful, no campaign experience) and profile (Ethiopian immigrant with a PhD in computer science from the University of Michigan) made him a welcome anomaly among party officials. Among his first projects was developing Para Bellum Labs, as the RNC referred to its new in-house “incubator,” intended to be a magnet for other technologists and data scientists—who would otherwise work at Silicon Valley companies—to improve the party’s existing systems and develop new digital capabilities.
When he came to the RNC, Reda committed to familiarize himself with the mess of activities lumped together as “the ground game” to understand how the information that his data scientists were analyzing first entered their servers. During a March 2014 special election, when the RNC ran phone banks from its basement, Reda joined volunteers placing phone calls into Florida’s 13th Congressional District. Over the final three months before the November midterms, he participated on weekly calls with each of the dozen campaigns in Senate battlegrounds, and the Saturday morning “around the world” debriefings in which regional political directors reported in on programs in each of the states under their purview. “The RNC is really good at collecting data,” Reda concluded, but there “really could be a set of tools to manage field staff and voter contact.”
The 29-year-old Reda likes to portray himself as a political naïf—“in Ethiopia, if you want to stay out of trouble you stay out of politics,” he says—although before going to graduate school he spent a year as a programmer at Aristotle, a Washington firm that has marketed voter data and software interfaces to campaigns since the early 1980s.
There Reda learned a dismal truth about the economics of political tech.
Since the floppy-disk era, those working on new products—including the program Reda worked on at Aristotle—have focused overwhelmingly on areas where campaigns see revenue and the pay-off from improved efficiency is self-evident. “If you’re trying to build something to make money, you look at finance aspects,” says Reda, whose work at Aristotle focused on campaign-finance reporting and compliance systems. “It’s much easier to sell a fundraising tool or finance tool.”
Since 2012, app-obsessed developers have focussed on canvassing, generating digital substitutes for the clipboards on which volunteers have traditionally carried walk lists and maps. The Republican marketplace is now rife with such walk apps—last fall, campaigns had a half-dozen options, including one produced by the RNC, GOP Data Beacon—but nothing to manage and track the volunteers using them. (In 2012, Mitt Romney’s campaign was left to rely on Salesforce.com, whose customer-relationship management platform is popular with corporate clients but has to be customized to serve marketers who target potential voters rather than buyers.)
Field programs have been an area historically underserved by the consultant-industrial complex, with the most entrepreneurial operatives drawn to making television ads or conducting polls rather than managing field offices. No one has figured out how to make real money off volunteer door-knocks. The same economics appear to have pushed digital innovation toward canvassing tools instead of managing field infrastructure, which represents a smaller market with less potential for scale: thousands of organizers as opposed to millions of volunteers.
After the 2014 elections, the RNC allowed Reda to quietly shift into a part-time role that allowed him to spend half his hours launching a start-up that could slide into that underserved space. The product being marketed by Republic, which now has eight employees split primarily between Washington and Austin, is unlikely to excite any venture capitalists looking for the next cool thing. Its revenue will come from selling licenses for individual users, with different prices for volunteers and staffers and tiered packages available for larger organizations, like presidential campaigns. Reda’s lined up a handful of angel investors; he will not identify them or say how many he has, but notes that they are more interested in helping Republicans win elections than than in short-term profit. (NationalField, a similar program developed by Obama veterans after the 2008 election, was later acquired by NGPVAN, a company that is now the left’s dominant provider of campaign technology.)
Republic VX addresses what may be the least sexy problem in politics, how to bring efficiency to the layered, volunteer-centric field organization Matt Bai once described as “the multilevel marketing of the president.” The platform includes a walk app, but Reda emphasizes its value is in distributing labor before anyone gets to a doorstep: assigning tasks to volunteers, managing their supervisors and offices, instilling a sense of accountability at every point. Republic’s promotional materials aren’t bashful about the fact that some of its appeal should come from being able to catch one’s own volunteers or staffers manufacture data to meet campaign goals or inflate measures of their productivity. To do this, the software uses a combination of location tracking—was Susan really at the door at 123 Oak Street when she says she had a conversation with a voter who lives there?—and what Republic describes as “advanced machine learning techniques to analyze reported voter contact patterns and alert you when voter contact reports look suspicious.”
Republic VX gives indications of having been rushed to market. It is not yet capable of directly processing voter interactions by telephone, even though volunteer phone banks rely on the same underlying data sets as canvasser’s walksheets and receive similar types of information in response from citizens when contacted. “We can’t solve every problem campaigns have,” says Reda, who indicates he expects to add other voter-contact features shortly.
But for Reda’s part-time employer, the timing of the launch is ideal. One of the RNC's major priorities is keeping the loyalty of the party’s candidates amid the emergence of a competing voter database being offered by i360, part of the political network associated with the Koch brothers. Even though the party (through its affiliated Data Trust) has signed a temporary data-sharing arrangement with i360, as first reported last week by the Washington Post, the two entities remain very much competitors. Some Republican presidential candidates will likely acquire voter data from both providers. Others could choose to rely on only one.
Although Republic can accept data from a variety of sources, the software is designed to be compatible with the RNC’s own voter file. Campaigns that have signed a data-sharing agreement with the committee—Kentucky Senator Rand Paul is the notable candidate who has thus far refused to—are issued a token that will allow the walk app to seamlessly pull voter profiles from the RNC’s database. (Otherwise data will have to be imported and exported manually.) At the same time, Republic VX should be able to instantly match volunteer identities to existing records containing a variety of demographic and consumer variables. While that data are not likely to be particularly useful profiling existing volunteers—if someone shows up to help a candidate, you probably know everything you need to about how he or she is likely to vote—they can help a campaign prioritize prospective ones based on knowledge of their past political behavior.
The RNC voter file’s unique asset is proprietary longitudinal data on individual voters, much of it collected from past interactions by candidate campaigns or party committees. The rise of the Kochs’ well-funded data warehouse—which already markets its own voter-contact app, called i360 Walk—could pull users out of the party data ecosystem entirely. That threatens the RNC with a vicious cycle: extant data doesn’t get updated through real-world interactions, making it a less appealing resource for candidates, which leads to more defections to i360. A single electoral cycle of neglect from major Republican players could leave the party’s data irredeemably stale.
Candidates who build their field operations around use of Republic VX could find themselves ultimately captive to the RNC voter file. As part of their data agreements with the the party, candidates are required to return information gathered from their contacts by the end of the election season; the Republic VX system can automate that process. The situation party officials want to avoid: having to enforce their contract by litigating with a candidate whose campaign no longer exists to acquire years-old data whose location is not entirely clear. By the time there’s a nominee, it could be too late to convince his or her campaign to adopt a new tech platform for their field program. Whoever emerges victorious from the large primary field, Reda fears, will “have already established a bunch of standard procedures and think, ‘this has worked for me.’”