Before a campaign launches, it must select software systems to manage all major functions. In evaluating their options, decision makers quickly run up against a thorny question: should we stick with vendors that serve only our own party, or consider companies that work with both sides of the aisle? The issue provokes strong opinions from campaign professionals, and there’s no clear consensus.
The poster child for the debate is NationBuilder, the widely-used CRM/website/emailing/recruiting/event management system that has become a major player in campaigns.
(Full disclosure: My 2016 congressional campaign utilized both NGP VAN and NationBuilder. We used NGP VAN for phonebanking, canvassing and compliance and NationBuilder for our CRM, website, and email client.)
NationBuilder is by no means the only vendor to work both sides, but they are the most hotly debated, primarily because of their large footprint and starkly contrasting client list.
But while some campaigns are comfortable coloring outside the lines in this way, others struggle with the question. Those opposed to the practice cite three major objections:
Objection 1: The other side will benefit from your campaign’s experience
The argument can be compelling: the two political parties derive lessons from the most recent election cycle, then strategize and apply those learnings to the next campaign. Political vendors do the same with their products. The improvements in the offerings of party-centric firms benefit that party’s campaigns exclusively, but improvements made by nonpartisan firms assist the other side as well. You don’t want to help the bad guys, do you?
This argument crumbles somewhat if the nonpartisan product is substantially stronger than the one offered by your side. Using of an inferior product could put your campaign at a strategic disadvantage.
Objection 2: The other side will benefit from your campaign’s money
A question potential non-partisan clients need to answer is, do you want your retainer going to help improve a product that could be used by your challenger next cycle?
There is of course an equally compelling counterargument: Would you like to see the fees of your competitor improve the product you use, thereby benefitting your campaign? Your answer might be yes, especially if you’re not too proud to learn from an adversary.
Objection 3: Using nonpartisan vendors is disloyal
Many of my fellow Democrats, particularly those who have been in the trenches for years, consider nonpartisan providers to be the political equivalent of mercenaries: just out to make a buck regardless of the outcome.
This is completely understandable: these partisan operatives have been fighting the good fight for decades, battling alongside vendors like NGP VAN and ActBlue, working to build and improve systems that give their candidates an edge. Turning your back on all that to hire a free agent feels nothing short of traitorous.
In the words of Michael Corleone, “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.” Campaigning is a merciless all-or-nothing endeavor. The simple up-or-down verdict is delivered with stark finality on Election Night. Your campaign doesn’t have the luxury of using second-best-in-class technology, regardless of the source.
And while NationBuilder continues to swirl in controversy, there seems to be little concern over the biggest double-dip vendor of them all: Facebook, which is used by virtually every candidate from president to dog catcher. Indeed, a campaign with no Facebook presence could scarcely be considered credible. Similarly, Twitter and other social media platforms accommodate all comers, as do virtually all advertising outlets. Campaigns apparently have no qualms with any of them.
Ultimately, each candidate and campaign team has a duty to themselves, their supporters and their donors to capture every advantage and squeeze every dollar. Features, usability, support and cost are all important considerations in selecting a software solution. If after careful consideration the optimum solution comes from a vendor whose sympathies lie in the same direction as yours, so much the better. But if your best chance for victory includes a nonpartisan software system, can you really afford to ignore it?
Andy Millard is a former congressional candidate and founder and organizer of the Democratic Candidates Conference. He also hosts the Democratic Candidates Podcast.