The identity of the two key digital technologies in the 2014 election cycle is clear: email fundraising and data-driven grassroots outreach.
Let’s start with the fundraising. If it weren’t for online donors, Democrats would have had the deck stacked against them in 2014, even more than they already did. Instead, party committees and independent groups like House Majority PAC sent an uncounted number of email appeals that collectively raised tens of millions of dollars from activists across the country.
As a result, until the final weeks before the election, Democrats were outspending their Republican counterparts in many tight Senate and House races. Moreover, because the money came in steadily over the summer and fall, they could buy TV well in advance, helping them get cheaper rates for their advertising and multiplying their cash advantage.
Democrats weren’t alone, of course, since Republicans also benefited from email-driven online fundraising. Their party committees hit Mitt Romney’s old email list 17 times during one week in October, for instance. But Democrats buried their supporters’ inboxes, with committees sometimes sending more like 17 emails in a single afternoon. Why? Because it worked—staffers told me they left money on the table every time they didn’t push “send.”
The second key digital campaign tool: data-driven grassroots outreach. The DSCC’s $60 million Bannock Street project was just one of several national field initiatives on the Democratic side. Their candidates, even those down ballot, could take advantage of the Voter Activation Network’s data-analysis tools to slice and dice the electorate and target their voter contact. Republicans also made field organizing more of an emphasis than in the past, but Democrats counted on it to narrow the margin in race after race across the country. Did it work? Not exactly.
Note what’s not on my list: social media. Facebook and Twitter definitely mattered to campaigns and individual activists, but they played a supporting role in 2014, not a central one. Email fundraising and field outreach drove the dynamic, not social media.
The Great Democratic Email Fundraising Debate
Speaking of all those Democratic fundraising emails—they sparked a backlash. It started with grumbling from individual Democratic activists, but the conversation broke into the open, particularly after an utter deluge around the FEC reporting deadline on September 30.
Many neutral observers like Slate’s John Dickerson bemoaned the potential effects of endless, repetitive, negative, and downright false appeals on our democracy, but some Democrats feared for the future of their party if they burned out liberal activists for immediate gain.
Of course, not everyone complained. Other organizers jumped in to defend aggressive fundraising practices, largely because of the stakes involved in not raising enough money to keep Democratic candidates competitive. At least one went downright Dada about the whole thing, turning subject lines into found poetry.
Whether email fundraising excesses will turn off the Democratic base for the long term remains to be seen, but it’s reasonable to propose that campaigns and committees at least consider down-the-road effects of their work to win this year. I suspect that this particular conversation has barely begun.
More Signs of a Republican Tech Evolution
The 2014 campaigns have turned up yet more evidence of conservatives jumping into tech-enabled grassroots campaigning in a big way, in some cases driven by pressure from big donors.
Individual candidates were part of the story, but I was also struck by Americans for Prosperity’s foray into data-driven field organizing. The Koch-affiliated organization has adopted a serious emphasis on grassroots outreach, hiring more than 500 field staff and working on local political issues and the midterm elections. In this past cycle, they also used the latest data analysis and targeting techniques to decide which voters to contact, with key information streaming to mobile apps in the hands of canvassers going door-to-door.
Of course, 500 people on the ground are insignificant measured against the grassroots presence of Democratic-affiliated groups. After all, the DSCC alone planned to field 4,000 staff by Election Day this year. But it’s a fascinating development, and we should watch closely to see how many other conservative groups mirror AFP’s new model.
NGP VAN Opens Itself to App Developers
Here’s something unusual in the political space: a company opening its technology to outside innovators. As part of a package of new and upgraded tools unveiled in August, Democratic vendor NGP VAN announced that it’s partnered with the Democratic Party to create a series of APIs, pre-packaged code snippets and other features that will let grassroots organizers with a technical bent create new tools to manipulate data in the company’s Voter Activation Network databases.
Nerd cool, for sure, but what does it mean? Think about an iPhone: it’s useful right out of the box, but the device reaches its full potential once you start installing apps that extend its native capabilities, from Twitter to Uber to the ever-popular Flashlight. NGP VAN’s new developer platform embodies a similar model, allowing anyone who uses the system to create new applications to meet needs not addressed by NGP VAN’s own toolset. As long as they have the necessary skills, organizers can create their own solutions the next time they have a wouldn’t-it-be-great-if-the-VAN-did-X moment.
Unleashed creativity? That’ll be more grist for future editions of TechBytes.
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning Epolitics.com, and a 15-year veteran of online politics.