The head scratching among political pundits in Washington, D.C. reached a fever pitch earlier this month after House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) suffered a stunning primary defeat at the hands of upstart challenger Dave Brat. How in the world could the presumed House Speaker in waiting have lost to an underfunded and largely unknown opponent?
Brat’s victory came thanks to several factors that all-told formed a sort of perfect storm. One of the most significant advantages Brat had against his entrenched and well-funded Republican opponent was, ironically, the same core, grassroots technology Democrats have been using for over a decade.
Known as rVotes, it’s the system my company deploys for candidates, and it’s essentially the same campaign system Democrats know as VoteBuilder, which is used by virtually every Democrat and liberal organization in the United States. I know because I was one of the original inventors of VoteBuilder, along with Mark Sullivan. In 2005, I sold my half of Voter Activation Network (VAN), which is now NGP VAN. I now license rVotes only to center-right political organizations, candidates, and parties—at least the ones who will have me.
So how exactly did Brat use our technology? First, he harnessed the free political muscle found in his volunteer base. Second, campaigns and organizations that already had data stored in rVotes were able to instantly “share” any portions of their precious, hand-cultivated constituent data with the Brat campaign. Several Tea Party groups chose to do so, and that helped him further microtarget the campaign’s universe.
We all know the smaller and more accurate a candidate can make their targeted universe, the less time and resources will be wasted on wooing constituents who will likely not affect the outcome of the election. In a relatively low turnout Republican primary, knowing who to target to turn out additional supporters was even more important for a candidate like Brat. In extreme cases, a razor sharp grassroots effort can make $200,000 more powerful on Election Day than an opponent’s $5 million.
One of our biggest proponents with the Brat campaign was Nancy Smith, a retired teacher public school administrator turned political activist and grassroots leader in Virginia. She was also one of the most important contributors to Brat’s small team. Having known Dave for years and wanting to support his bid for Congress, she was instrumental in the Brat campaign adopting rVotes as its campaign voter management system. Knowing that Brat had the grassroots community supporting his campaign and that seasoned canvassers were going to work for him, Smith lobbied for the campaign to deploy our system to implement its ground operations.
It was clear to those working on the Brat campaign that Cantor had no real ground game—he wasn’t knocking on doors and he wasn’t targeting his voters. The best we could ascertain, Cantor looked to bring in his typical Republican primary voter while we carved out a segment of voters who were not the usual targets for a primary (Virginia has no party registration).
The Brat campaign took advantage of our system to make the collection and interpretation of the vast amounts of constituent data significantly easier. Again, it’s not a new concept, but the Cantor campaign appeared blissfully unaware this was a weapon the Brat campaign had at its disposal. That worked wonders for the Brat campaign, which was able to act and react to the pulse of the canvassed almost instantaneously.
Brat’s campaign used the system to pull data for internal polling, tag voters according to key campaign issues, compile accurate phones for Election Day GOTV, and pull voters for opportunities to see Brat in person at town halls. We targeted voters based on 2012 primary history to seek out previous Cantor supporters, and we updated our data following entry to find undecided voters and pin down their vote preference with personal calls from Brat or volunteers in the final hours before Election Day.
So my question in the aftermath of Brat’s victory: What’s wrong with Republican campaigns? All 50 State Democrat Parties now use VoteBuilder, with more than 40 of those states having originally acquired it at their own expense, independently from the Democratic National Committee from 2001- 2007. The DNC officially endorsed VoteBuilder as their unified, national solution in 2007.
So why are Republican campaigns afraid of rVotes? I know it’s as good as VoteBuilder, because I helped create VoteBuilder, but plenty of big name Republican consultants have given this technology the cold shoulder.
Instead, the GOP is pushing their newest version of their widely criticized and dated “VoterVault” technology and promise they’re working on a new “super system.” For too long the same consultants have been making these key decisions despite big losses. By virtually all accounts, the GOP is still years behind the left’s grassroots technology, despite the renewed, cyclical promises to build a tool to best what the Democrats have.
Without a welcome home on mainstream Republican campaigns, rVotes has quietly fallen into the hands of underdog candidates like Dave Brat, who had virtually no support from the Republican establishment. The GOP’s efforts to squeeze out rVotes, for whatever reason, now looks like it may have made things worse. They may end up losing elections on two fronts—against the left’s VoteBuilder technology and now the conservative’s virtually identical system.
So Brat’s win wasn’t just a victory against the hapless Republican establishment in Washington, it was a victory against the establishment consultants who are so darned convinced that they know the best way to win. From where I sit, Republicans may have succeeded in ignoring my system, but they haven’t even come close to bridging the technology gap with the left.
Steve lives near the Ocean in Rhode Island, with his wife and their three children.