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

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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 Liberal Democrats, part of the coalition opposing independence, also used the VAN product from NGP VAN.)

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

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Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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