In 2011, smarting from the loss of the Internet-fueled 2008 Presidential election, the Republican National Committee (RNC) announced its plan to upgrade the operating system it uses for winning elections. Its first salvo in the high-tech voter outreach arms race was Data Trust, a massive database that now tracks the political habits of 260 million Americans (including voter registration, election history, and voter contact results). Republican campaigns now use an array of other tools–the ecosystem includes Para Bellum, Targeted Victory, FLS Connect, and i360–in the hopes of transforming future races.
Republican and Democratic data companies constantly tweak each other about who has the better toys. Writing on their official blog last August, Data Trust poked fun at the opposition, by pointing out that they developed a set of important tools for political consultants (a voter sample platform called “Lincoln” and an API for developers) ahead of NGP VAN, the toolkit favored by Democrats. At the same time, Democratic Party organizers make videos poking fun at Republican technology efforts that are aimed at a relatively small audience of engineers and strategists working in the political realm.
In other words, if you think the political fight playing out in public right now is wonky, wait until you hear about the machinations of the tech companies working behind the scenes to sway your vote. We surveyed the latest efforts from both parties to find out about the state of the art in electioneering engineering. The big obsession among the Republicans, it seems, is gearing up for the 2016 Presidential election.
Building A Tech Toolbox For The GOP
Earlier this year, the Republican National Committee (RNC) announced the launch of , a tech firm dedicated to what they call “Data engineering to power elections,” and with the unspoken goal of outflanking the Democratic Party’s sophisticated data mining and information collating capabilities. In an email to Fast Company, Para Bellum co-creator and Republican Party chief data scientist Azarias Reda said that he was especially proud of his team’s efforts to aggregate data such as door knock responses, and helping to develop constantly updated models of voter sentiment.
A big part of Para Bellum’s work is in the area of creating a targeted sharing system that lets campaign volunteers enter information for potential contacts, and then generate customized messages for those contacts in real time. While this technology has been in the advertising world for some time, it is still relatively new to the political sphere. Political races often come down to field workers going door-to-door or working the phones, and Republican (and Democrat) organizations believe that giving better tools to build better mobile apps is crucial.
The big challenge for Para Bellum is that they’re essentially building two different products at the same time: productivity management software for field workers and volunteers, along with sophisticated market research and advertising tools for the campaigns themselves. It’s not a challenge specific to the Republicans–the Democrats face the exact same issue–but it’s a unique development issue. Simply put, political campaigns don’t run at the same tempo as the mainstream advertising and marketing world.
Data Trust has been actively working to make life easier for Republican campaigns in terms of implementing the latest technology for outreach and advertising. This summer they reached an agreement with i360, a rival data management company for right-wing candidates affiliated with the Koch brothers, to share and consolidate data. The organization has been pouring resources into making their assets more easily available for developers to build on.
If you’ve seen an ad for a Republican candidate pop up when looking at a website, there’s a decent chance Targeted Victory is behind it. Zac Moffatt, the cofounder of the advertising firm and former head of digital for the Romney 2012 campaign, has a tough mission: making sure Republican campaigns aim ads at the smallest demographics possible. His company, which has just over 100 employees, helps GOP candidates place ads on websites and on television screens. And Moffatt’s team has a big goal (one, again, shared with his Democratic counterparts): making political ads on television, smartphones, and computers tailored to every individual voter.
Moffatt told Fast Company that he views his company as an advertising firm first and foremost, with technical chops emphasized over ideological affiliation. Multiple references were made in conversation to being an online advertising company that is “best in class” and not just in the politics world. For Targeted Victory and its rivals, that means vacuuming up as much data on ordinary Americans as possible and putting it toward electing candidates instead of selling potato chips.
In August, Targeted Victory entered into partnership with Acxiom, one of America’s largest data brokers, to use the company’s databases on financial, entertainment, and home habits as well as demographic information. The announcement followed another partnership, with Twitter, to use the company’s Targeted Audiences product to target highly specific audiences of influencers who use Twitter to talk about, say, health care or taxes.
Although 2014’s races have been relatively sedate and low stakes by American political standards, companies like Targeted Victory are making lots of money placing targeted ads online. In August of this year, a digital advocacy group called IMGE, which works closely with Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, purchased all available YouTube ad inventory in Alaska to place targeted advertising for that state’s senate race; similar big buys of online advertising took place by Republican-affiliated groups in New Hampshire, Colorado, and Iowa.
All of this, however, is a run-up to the 2016 presidential race and what Moffatt sees as the big trend for future political advertising: targeted advertising sent directly to television viewers. This technology, which is already available through DirectTV, allows different political messages to be sent to different people watching the same show depending on their demographics. That means your web-surfing habits may shape the political ads appearing on your television.
Industry analysts expect the market to grow over the next decade, but it may never replace the mass broadcast political advertising of a generation ago. “One in three voters didn’t watch television last week except for sports,” he added. “Right now, we waste money reaching those voters.”