A crop of Millennial congressional candidates shunned partisan vendors this cycle—a move that might just foreshadow a realignment of the industry.
Partisan vendors still take in the vast majority of campaign and issue advocacy spending, but candidates in their 20s and 30s are beginning to seek out alternatives. In nonpartisan vendors they’re finding easy-to-use apps and none of the restrictive rules governing the use of partisan technology, which suits this up-and-coming generation just fine.
Millennials are known for their distrust of established institutions with about half calling themselves Independents and 29 percent telling Pew in a 2014 survey
they’re not affiliated with any religion. Those are at or near the highest levels of disaffiliation the Pew Research Center has recorded in a quarter century of polling.
“Non-partisan platforms are getting more sophisticated and can get the job done,” said Nick Troiano, who ran for Congress in 2014 when he was 24 and now advises other Millennial candidates.
Now, this cycle has seen a handful of 20-somethings make underfunded primary runs from New Jersey to California. In many cases, they’ve flamed out against established incumbents. But how their campaigns were structured suggests a generational shift in the industry could be on the horizon.
To be sure, these candidates hired their vendors for reasons beyond their detachment from the party apparatus. In many cases they were cheaper and offered better integration with the rest of the campaign’s tools. But in others, it was a forced decision.
New Jersey Democrat Alex Law, 25, said he wanted to go the partisan route when it came to data, but he needed the state Democratic committee’s approval to get access to NGP VAN at below market rates.
In late June 2015 as he geared up for his congressional run, Law requested NGP VAN access. But because he was challenging Rep. Donald Norcross, Law said the state committee deliberately tried to sabotage his campaign by not even responding to his request. In fact, it wasn’t until mid July 2015 that he got a response — a huge period of time for a primary campaign.
“They couldn’t give us access to even purchase SmartVAN without getting a ‘no’ from the sate party, and the state party wouldn’t even give them an answer until we forced them to give an answer,” said Law.
Once NGP VAN received their “no” from the state party, Law said the company offered him access to SmartVAN, a slightly different version of VoteBuilder that was costlier. “I looked at it, and it made no sense,” Law said.
Law’s campaign decided to go with L2 instead. “The only other option than that was to go to the county clerk and request all the voter registrations and build a housing system that could do filtering,” he said. “The data that you get from the county in New Jersey is almost [unusable]. It would have been extremely difficult.”
Law, whose total budget was around $75,000, ultimately lost to Norcross, a former state senator, in the June 7 primary 70 to 30 percent. Law credits his 23,689-vote total as a first-time candidate to his data provider. “L2 gave us the base to create other tools that we needed for the campaign.”
Of course, NGP VAN doesn’t set the rules for access to its products — that’s done by the state Democratic parties. And as the company points out, the challenger restriction is in place because incumbents are typically the ones adding value to VoteBuilder by expanding and updating its data on Democratic voters.
In instances where access is denied, the candidates can get SmartVan as an alternative, said Stu Trevelyan, CEO of NGP VAN. “There’s been plenty of examples of insurgent campaigns gaining access to the tools.”
He pointed to Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s challenger Tim Canova, who was denied access to VoteBuilder. “Canova came to us and we put him on SmartVan,” said Trevelyan. “It’s very, very rare for candidates to feel like they can’t have SmartVan or VoteBuilder.”
As for a generational shift favoring nonpartisan firms, Trevelyan just doesn’t see one. “I think Millennial candidates are going to be the same as previous candidates in that they’re going to use the best tools and data to help them win,” he said.
In many ways, there’s still legitimacy bestowed on a candidate by using partisan technology. California Republican Justin Fareed, who is running against Democrat Salud Carbajal for retiring Rep. Lois Capps’s (D) seat, is a 28-year-old second-time candidate who has raised more than $1 million for his bid. His campaign is exclusively using partisan technology firms, despite the California market being a stronghold of nonpartisan data firm PDI.
Asked about his vendor hiring decisions, Rick Wiley, Fareed’s general consultant, called PDI “outrageously expensive” and said he wasn’t familiar enough with alternatives.
“i360 has a good product,” he said of the GOP data firm. “[We] would also use RNC data, but [the California] GOP won't give primary candidates access.”
Still, Fareed is a favored party candidate backed by the NRCC. For candidates on the outside looking in, they argue that nonpartisan vendors are often the only way to go.
Take Erin Schrode’s House campaign in Northern California, which has been held up as example of the Millennial generation’s political ambitions. The Democrat, despite not being the only 20-something running for Congress this cycle, received coverage on the “Today Show,” CNN and MTV, and from outlets ranging from Forbes to Mic to Marie Claire.
Her camp’s exclusive use of nonpartisan vendors helped the first-time candidate go from zero name ID and a near-deadline-day campaign launch to peeling 12,618 Democratic votes off a two-term incumbent in California’s June 7 primary.
Partisan vendors have linked their business model to the good of the party. But first-time candidates, particularly those lining up against an established officeholder with business relationships in place, say they’re finding more flexibility, attention and competitive pricing coming from nonpartisan vendors.
For her primary challenge to Rep. Jared Huffman (D), Schrode’s team hired CallFire for phones, NationBuilder for its website, Polis for canvassing and used L2 for data after finding partisan vendors less keen on their business, according to Jason Teramoto, a veteran operative who managed Schrode’s effort.
“We made an early decision not to go with NGP VAN. It was a matter of how much of the data we were using and what we were going to be integrating it with,” said Teramoto. “The decision to go with [L2] was largely based on integration and how well that [data] transfer was going to happen.”
The campaign’s total budget was around $53,000, Teramoto estimated, against an incumbent who raised $663,696 by mid-May. In addition to being outspent, the size of the district, which stretches from the San Francisco suburbs to the Oregon border, was also a challenge.
Teramoto said that Polis, the nonpartisan canvassing app, made it easy for the campaign’s volunteers to reach clusters of voters in isolated communities around the district.
He gave the example of a volunteer stopping for a coffee in Humboldt County and being able to canvass the houses of a half-dozen supporters who just happened to live within a short distance. The campaign’s Marin County headquarters, meanwhile, would be able to access the data after the supporter finished her or his mini-canvass.
“I think the fact that they are a nonpartisan app, and this goes to the bulk of applications that are coming out right now — it really forces them to be one step ahead of everybody else,” he said. “If they want to be integrated in, they have to be competitive, but they have to be valuable and really sell themselves to the candidate.”