A powerful new grassroots-focused campaign apparatus complete with a sophisticated infrastructure for gathering and analyzing voter data is being built on the right. The fascinating part? This organization isn’t part of the Republican Party. It’s being assembled by people working for the Koch Brothers’ independent political operation.
We caught a glimpse of the Kochs’ field organizing emphasis in the last issue of TechBytes, but as Mike Allen and Ken Vogel reported in Politico in December, the Kochs (long-time bogeymen to the left) have also spent at least $50 million over the past several years building the capacity to assemble political data and put it to work. Their aim? To create the equivalent of the grassroots data services companies like TargetSmart and Catalist offer to Democratic state parties, individual campaigns, labor unions and other liberal groups.
The company, called i360, is already worrying the competition. At a panel we shared at the Rootscamp training/postelection debriefing event for Democrats in December, John Lee, NGP VAN’s chief technology officer, sounded genuinely concerned about the Kochs’ new investment. He warned the audience that it could erode the data advantage the left has worked for years to build. And he wasn’t the only Dem techie I talked to that weekend who was worried.
But it’s not just Democrats who should be concerned. Because the Kochs don’t answer to the GOP— though i360 does have a relationship with the RNC—the company could help unsanctioned upstarts win surprise victories in upcoming Republican primaries. Still, the left is the Kochs’ main target, and Democrats know it. Look for a major data duel to break out in 2016.
Self-Serve Ad Platforms Bring Targeting Down Ballot
Sophisticated poli-tech continues to creep into state and local campaigns. The latest example? Targeted Victory, CampaignGrid and DSPolitical launching “self-serve” platforms for voter-targeted online ad campaigns this cycle. These online portals let campaigns for state legislator, mayor or even city council buy digital ads designed to reach particular slices of their own electorates, relying on so-called cookies and other ad-targeting tech to hit the right people with the right messages.
With minimum ad buys in the hundreds rather than tens of thousands of dollars, these platforms are perfect for small campaigns determined to squeeze every voter contact out of their scarce resources. Judging from initial numbers from DSPolitical’s DemocraticAds.com system, the word is out. The total spent this year blew the company’s internal estimates out of the water, with 42 percent of the ads bought by state House campaigns and another 21 percent by candidates for state Senate.
With thousands of state legislators back on the ballot in 2016, self-serve online advertising should become a powerful tool for them to reach the voters they need to mobilize or persuade, particularly for those whose TV and radio options waste too many ad impressions outside district lines.
Driving the VAN in Local D.C. Elections
In the summer and fall of 2014, I had the privilege of watching Elissa Silverman’s victorious campaign for D.C. Council up close, since her office was just a few feet from mine in a shared workspace in the District’s Shaw neighborhood.
One fascinating result: I learned that her crack staff leaned heavily on the Voter Activation Network, the “VAN” in NGP VAN. Among other things, the VAN provides campaigns the tools to manipulate a voter file to create walk lists and call sheets for grassroots outreach. As Elissa demonstrated, it’s not just for big congressional or statewide efforts. i360, I should note, rolled out a VAN-like toolset this past cycle, which provided a date-slicing interface for Republicans who buy access to it.
Meanwhile, the DNC has included the VAN in the package of tools they’re pushing to down-ballot Dems across the country. If you combine this kind of grassroots campaigning ability with the voter-targeted digital ads described above, you can see the trend clearly: Local campaigns can now build a national-caliber arsenal.
Desperate Need for Trained Staff
Tools don’t mean much if you can’t use them, though, and the desperate need for trained staff was another theme that emerged at December’s Rootscamp.
With presidential campaigns on both sides poised to suck up as much talent as they can—a dozen Republicans may jump into the race, and while Democrats may be Ready for Hillary, she won’t go unchallenged—2016 will also see 34 Senate campaigns, plus there’s races for statewide office. Factor in congressional races, who will also need digital staff, and we could see a talent void open up.
Vendors will undoubtedly rush to fill the void and many campaigns will outsource much of their digital communications work by necessity. But while consultants’ specialized skills and national perspective are powerful resources, they can’t fully replace the insights of a staffer embedded with a campaign. Good online campaigners will be worth their weight in votes next year.
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning Epolitics.com, and a 15-year veteran of online politics.