Proponents of party agnostic technology have their sights on a post-election shift in the political tech industry that could help their sector grow.
Increasingly optimistic that a move away from the all-in-one partisan firm (long the industry standard for Democrats) is on the horizon within the next couple of cycles, non-partisan consultants are jockeying for position.
A restructuring of the national market is what companies like Aristotle and NationBuilder are banking on. The latter is already trying to position itself as the vendor of choice for presidential campaigns, albeit of the outsider variety. In a recent marketing email, the company touted the four 2016 campaigns it counts among its clients: Donald Trump, Jill Stein, Gary Johnson and Evan McMullin.
Meanwhile, Aristotle has started more aggressively advocating for a move away from the all-in-one partisan firm in interviews and in a digital ad campaign aimed at NGP VAN. For Aristotle CEO John Phillips, it’s something akin to a full-frontal assault on partisan technology vendors. The company even invited other nonpartisan tech firms (including NationBuilder, which declined) to join in its current ad campaign, making the case for a more coordinated attack.
Part of the thinking is that a cycle characterized by fresh concerns over data security and hacking (issues that both partisan and non-partisan tech firms have faced in 2016) offers a genuine opening for campaigns and party committees to reexamine the tech landscape.
Regardless of the outcome on Nov. 8, Phillips told C&E he’ll work to make the case that “significant changes” are necessary at organizations like the Democratic National Committee.
“Fresh thinking will be required to correct for obvious failures in the way the DNC handles data security, [and] [t]he grossly unfair discrimination by the DNC that crushes the chances of Democratic primary challengers at the state and federal level,” said Phillips, echoing one of the more common lines of attack against partisan tech firms like NGP VAN.
The new attack from Aristotle comes some five years after the two tangled in a false-advertising legal battle. Aristotle had accused the company of not being as Democratic as its advertising claimed. Now, instead of questioning the company’s party loyalty, Aristotle is attacking the value of NGP VAN to Democratic candidates, and its relationship to the DNC and state parties. Some candidates denied access to its services by state party officials have criticized the company’s exclusive relationship to the national committee, and consultants have questioned its internal security procedures after a data-security breach last December saw members of Bernie Sanders’ digital team access Clinton’s proprietary data.
In response to the ad campaign, NGP VAN’s Stu Trevelyan said: “Aristotle has a long history of trying to win in the press and court when they’re losing in the market. I feel bad for Aristotle’s clients, who have consistently found they prefer our better software, pricing, and support.”
As for the scale of the Aristotle effort, the company pegs the current cost of its ad campaign at $250k (though for what it’s worth, C&E was hard pressed to find tech consultants or others in the space who had actually seen any of the digital spots running).
One digital strategist, who’s not affiliated with a partisan tech firm, noted that if Aristotle was targeting the small universe of senior Beltway committee staffers and consultants with a budget that large, it would certainly generate notice from those on the receiving end: “If they were running ads in D.C., we would see them. I haven't."
Those inside the Democratic Party structure are more than a little skeptical that any wide-scale push toward non-partisan technology will emerge ahead of the next election cycle. When it comes to Democratic party committees in particular, any sort of rapid shift sounds farfetched to many consultants, at least in the near term. In part, they say, that’s because one of the primary arguments against working with non-partisan vendors (they work for the opposition, too) is still a powerful one for many in the party.
Individual campaigns are no doubt easier to shift in the short term, and that’s exactly where several non-partisan consultants told C&E they intend to double down their efforts. Plenty of campaigns have embraced the build-your-own model by picking and choosing the technology and software that works best for their race.
Stripe has become a popular payment processor for campaigns this cycle and Clinton’s presidential and the DGA have turned to Salesforce, which could potentially help with voter contact or fundraising. To wit, the Clinton campaign has an entire team devoted to the program and started hiring administrators for the cloud-based software as far back as June 2015.
“The motion is less about the partisan-non-partisan than it is about the actual clientele moving to apolitical, non-political technologies all together,” said Chris Lundberg, who co-founded the digital firm Frakture and was one of the original founders of Salsa Labs. “There’s a little bit of churn in the left-right political world, but it’s completely swamped by the churn in the for-profit world on the tech side.”
Now, the for-profit world is seen as a haven from the lean, off-cycle years of the campaign business. There’s a general feeling among some partisan consultants about the need to shift away from relying solely on political campaign business in order to buttress against an odd-year, slow-growth period.
After acquiring Incite in September, BPI’s Andrew Bleeker told AdExchanger: “Both companies come from politics at the highest levels, and both are based on how we apply the lessons of politics to brands. That’s where we think a lot of our future lies.”
Other entities, such as Change.org, have successfully made similar leaps to broaden their client base.
Lundberg predicted the market could start “moving away from all-in-one technology solutions like NGP VAN and more toward picking the technologies best to the end user.
“You see a trend not just away from partisan plays, but away from purely political plays at all,” he added. “That’s been accelerating pretty aggressively.”