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Cashing In

The “myth of digital democracy,” as Matthew Hindman points out, is the misplaced optimism that technology will be the great leveler, generating new avenues for political voice through the creation of online communities.17 Rather than “democratize democracy” as hopeful advocates sometimes claim, Hindman shows that the online public sphere reproduces many of the same inequalities we see elsewhere in political life.18 One reason, perhaps, is because the new tools of digital campaigns have become just another service to sell. Unlike the early days of radio or television, campaign innovations today occur in a highly developed marketplace for political work. As a result, new technologies of vote-getting quickly become commercial products and services that consultants sell to candidates in search of an advantage over their adversaries.

The development of digital campaigning illustrates how early advances in new media became part of the larger business of politics in the United States. As noted, the 2004 Dean campaign marked an important breakthrough in online fundraising and voter mobilization as a talented group of young staffers built a technological platform that turned the Internet into a viable and valuable political tool.19 When Dean’s campaign faltered, this previously unknown group of tech-savvy twenty- and thirty-somethings found themselves in high demand in the political world. As one Dean veteran recalled, “We were all pretty well marketable at the time, probably more so than we knew.”20 In fact, experiences gained during the 2004 Dean campaign launched several successful consulting firms that became dominant players in the emerging field of digital politics.

This trajectory is clearly illustrated in the case of Blue State Digital (BSD). Daniel Kreiss describes how four Dean staffers came together in the waning days of the campaign, motivated by “the need for better election tools and the opportunities within Democratic political consulting.”21 As one of the firm’s founders put it, “There was a lot of opportunity in this space. ... All of us recognized that there was a business need.”22 It did not take long for a start-up conceived in a Burlington, Vermont, bar to turn the innovations of the Dean campaign into a successful commercial enterprise. In 2005, BSD worked on behalf of Dean’s successful bid to become chair of the Democratic National Committee, and, afterward, members of the firm played a central part in rebuilding the technological capacity of the party. As Kreiss documents so well, BSD developed a modular structure for email fundraising and volunteer recruitment that could be sold to other clients and candidates.23 During the 2006 midterms, for example, BSD provided digital services to almost two dozen House and Senate candidates (twenty of whom won their election). By 2008, Blue State Digital had fifty employees and was poised for even greater success as one of the firm’s founders, Joe Rospars, became new media director for Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign.24

Two factors were critical to the success of Blue State Digital, one representing an important departure in consulting, the other a decidedly traditional approach to political work. First, an important innovation by BSD was that it secured a client agreement with Democracy for America, Howard Dean’s political action committee, giving the firm proprietary control over the technical platform created during the 2004 Dean campaign.25 By transforming the work of many into the intellectual property of a single company, BSD enjoyed a distinct advantage over its competitors trying to enter the promising field of digital politics. Second, like other successful consulting firms, BSD clearly positioned itself as a partisan player in the market for political work. Rather than develop a digital platform that could be sold to anyone, BSD worked exclusively for Democratic causes and candidates. This enabled the firm to build its client base through a partisan network that included the Democratic Party, allied organizations like America Coming Together (whose director of Internet strategy become managing director of BSD in early 2006), and Democratic candidates (including then junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama).26

Other successful firms in the digital field followed a similar path. Voter Activation Network (VAN), for example, got its start in the 2002 election when its founders developed software that could integrate voter information files, market research, and other data in a single, user-friendly interface. This was particularly useful for get-out-the-vote efforts because it placed valuable data right in the hands of campaign field operations. Unlike commercial vendors who sold voter information to campaigns but retained ownership of the lists, VAN’s business model was to sell its software but let clients keep the data. This served partisan ends, as it enabled various state parties, individual campaigns, and allied groups to share information. During the 2004 campaign, VAN software was used by the Kerry campaign’s field operations; after Kerry’s loss, VAN helped numerous state party committees build up their own valuable voter lists. By 2006, the firm had contracts in twenty-five states.27

Like Blue State Digital, VAN emerged from the 2006 election cycle with a strong reputation in Democratic circles as a key provider of digital tools. In 2007, the Democratic National Committee hired VAN to build the interface for its national voter file, and in 2008 VAN and BSD worked together within the Obama campaign to integrate each other’s products in a single platform that combined data collected from donors on the public campaign website with the voter files and other valuable sources of information used by field operations on the ground. Although the practical effects of this effort were somewhat limited due to technical challenges in managing large and diverse sources of data, 2008 nevertheless marked an important step in the development and integration of digital technology in presidential campaigns. In particular, data analytics emerged as a powerful tool that could combine online and offline sources of information about voters to identify and mobilize supporters, raise money, and target appeals with greater precision.28 The various experiments, enhancements, and advances that contributed to the Obama campaign’s success in 2008 also had important implications for the rapidly developing business of digital politics.

If 2004 revealed the political potential of the Internet, 2008 demonstrated the commercial viability of sophisticated and increasingly sought-after campaign technologies. Firms like BSD and VAN turned digital tools into proprietary software that could be licensed to parties, candidates, and advocacy groups. As usage of this software spread, these firms captured a significant share of a growing market. Since 2008, several start-ups led by former campaign staffers have translated other digital advances into commercial products and services. For instance, the head of Obama’s digital advertising efforts in 2008 established Bully Pulpit Interactive, currently the leading commercial provider of online ads to Democratic clients. A similar pattern is evident on the Republican side. In 2009, the former director of the Republican National Committee’s voter turnout program started the consulting firm Targeted Victory along with another veteran from the 2008 campaign. Since then, Targeted Victory has become the leading provider of digital services to the GOP29

In 2012, the Obama re-election effort and the Romney campaign for president invested heavily in digital tools, drawing key personnel from the handful of consulting firms that dominate the field. For instance, the Obama team included a dozen members with ties to Blue State Digital, including its chief digital strategist, Joe Rospars, and digital director, Teddy Goff. The founder of Bully Pulpit Interactive, Andrew Bleeker, directed Internet advertising and tapped four associates from his firm to help with digital marketing on the campaign. Meanwhile, the Romney team hired Targeted Victory cofounder Zac Moffatt as digital director along with ten other employees of the firm.30 These partisan ties also paid financial dividends: Bully Pulpit Interactive billed the Obama campaign more than $104 million for online ads, while Targeted Victory billed the Romney campaign around $98 million for digital services.31

As these examples suggest, the new digital politics reinforces rather than challenges the partisan nature of political work. Although a few nonpartisan consulting firms do exist, these exceptions prove the partisan rule. Aristotle Industries is a longtime vendor of voter lists and campaign software to both Democratic and Republican clients but has recently faced stiff competition from newer, avowedly partisan rivals in the digital marketplace. In fact, Aristotle sued Democratic technology firm NGP for false advertising, arguing that a licensee of NGP software aided Republican candidates (rendering NGP’s claims to be a “Democratic firm” misleading). According to NGP founder

Nathaniel Pearlman, Aristotle’s lawsuit was an attempt to hobble his company with a costly court battle. A federal judge dismissed the case in 2011 (in 2010, NGP merged with VAN to become the leading provider of campaign software on the Democratic side).32 A more recent effort to establish a nonpartisan firm is NationBuilder, which offers its clients a low-cost suite of web-based tools that can be tailored to the needs of almost any organization, large or small. Although the firm has attracted venture capital, some question the viability of a nonpartisan firm operating in what is largely a partisan marketplace. As Harper Reed, chief technology officer for the 2012 Obama campaign, put it, “How could we trust [NationBuilder]? What are they sharing? What combined intelligence are they giving ... to our enemies?”33 Zac Moffatt of the Republican firm Targeted Victory agreed that “partisanship has a role because of the trust factor,” which is compounded by the fact that firms providing digital services are “touching so much of their [clients’] data.”34

In sum, the growth of Internet advertising and data analytics in American campaigns marks both an important shift and a significant continuity in the history of political work. As noted previously, there are few patents in politics. This is clearly beginning to change as consultants increasingly are able to secure intellectual property rights for their political innovations. At the same time, however, the continued partisan character of political consulting means that the business of digital politics is not much different from the analog model that preceded it.

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