Big data wars: How technology could tip the mid-term elections

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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.”


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.”

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