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  • 11.04.14

The Democratic Party Has Become A Software Platform

There’s a reason why the Democrats want their candidates’ advisors to understand UI and UX.

The Democratic Party Has Become A Software Platform

In August, a technology company called NGP VAN that serves Democratic political candidates held a press conference. They unveiled a comprehensive redesign of their organizing tool, which played a key role in President Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 elections. Eight days later, Data Trust, an organization which supplies huge voter databases to Republican candidates, announced it was partnering with a competitor named i360 to streamline its voter outreach operations.

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Just as Democrats and Republicans duke it out in public forums leading up to election day, there’s a behind-the-scenes battle between the parties to achieve supremacy in 2016. So far, the Democrats are still winning.

At the press conference, the Democratic Party also told attendees they were building a formal alliance with NGP VAN that would make it, in effect, the Democratic Party’s top tech provider. While Republican candidates and right-wing interest groups have their choice of a complicated ecosystem of computer software and products, Democratic campaigns would squarely be NGP VAN territory. Any other vendors that wanted to enter the sphere with supplemental products, including rivals like the non-partisan NationBuilder, would have to work inside the NGP VAN platform. It looked less like a Democratic platform than something out of the playbook from the platform teams at Facebook or Twitter.

While Republican vendors like i360 and Data Trust have also been building powerful databases and APIs for developers, NGP VAN’s update–the first since 2007–is the culmination of a year-long consolidation spree. Last November, NGP VAN acquired NationalField, which tracks field organizers using a Facebook-like interface and was a cornerstone of the 2008 win.

The update included a revamped version of a massive database called Voter Activation Network (VAN) which gives campaigns extremely detailed information about voters. VAN is considered to be one of the Democrats’ secret weapons. The core of VAN, originally constructed in coordination with Obama for America, is a massive database on voters and their habits nationwide. Now, in the age of mobile, that information is being mashed up with information from web browser cookies, mobile consumption patterns, Facebook profiles, and a million other data points.

NGP VAN also unveiled a set of APIs for developers to build applications for individual campaigns or organizations around, and a designer-friendly style and pattern library called ProgressUI. ProgressUI’s existence in itself is fascinating: It’s a clear signal that the Democratic Party wants a unified, top-down software ecosystem for candidates.

This ecosystem includes mechanisms for fundraising, organizing, and recruiting volunteers from individual voters’ social networks. They even accept bitcoin.

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Barack Obama’s previous campaigns gave birth to prominent strategy agency Blue State Digital and an extremely talented and high-profile cohort of data and advertising gurus. Despite the best efforts of Republican candidates, the centralized approach of the Democrats appears to yield better dividends. And as the 2014 elections give way to a heated Presidential election in just two years, the tech campaigns use will get increasingly micro-targeted and personal.

In the long term, NGP VAN CEO Stuart Trevelyan–just like Republican consultants I spoke with–feels that digital advertising is simply less wasteful for candidates than broadcast advertising. “Television is fundamentally a wasteful medium the way ads have been bought for decades,” Trevelyan told Fast Company. “There are all kinds of people watching a show who have already decided to vote for you or against you. It’s wasteful. Online ads let us do person-level targeting… Working with our company, a variety of online ad agencies serving Democratic candidates match voter files to cookies which allows us to advertise towards just 10,000 people who meet our criteria.”

Trevelyan then went on to express his excitement about DirectTV and Dish allowing political candidates to send television ads targeted at individual households, and expressed hope that other service providers would offer similar services in the future. Targeted ads for candidates in high-stakes battlegrounds–or aimed at specific households that tend to disproportionately view Internet content about key issues–is seen as a more effective way of spending limited advertising funds for candidates.

But even if television advertising is returned in some personalized way, it is unlikely to have the impact that mass media political advertising used to. If you want to see the future of political advertising, it’s probably going to look something more like Social Recruiting.

Social Recruiting systematically finds supporters for a particular candidate who are influencers in their social networks, and then reaches out to them in order to convert them into campaign volunteers. The technology is currently being tested by the Ready for Hillary super PAC, and using social network graphs to find and recruit “influencers” for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s potential 2016 presidential run.

Rather than layering on top of social networks, Social Recruiting is designed to give campaigners algorithm firepower usually found inside hedge funds or intelligence agencies–which will then apply them to finding and recruiting the nodes inside a network that stick out. It signals a more personal, possibly more annoying, and much more insistent approach to getting out the vote for future political races.