As Liberal Activists Ramp Up, Are Data And Digital Strategy Left Behind?

liberal advocacy imgSince the 2016 election, liberal organizations like the ACLU, Center for American Progress (CAP) and Planned Parenthood have been sprinting like they’re on hot coals, smashing online donation precedents, flooding congressional phone lines and marshaling nationwide protests.

But does that energy translate into gains for the Democratic Party’s data and digital media ecosystem?

During a national election, rallies and events provide a constant source of data. But the liberal organizers active in 2017 don’t work closely with their data-driven compatriots.

“Of the more traditional tech side of the broad liberal ecosystem, like an NGP VAN, we have some of those technologies, but that’s the side I know the least about,” said Emily Sussman, director of campaigns for CAP, a leading liberal think tank and advocacy group.

CAP’s researchers provide data for advocacy groups, like which congressional districts have movable representatives, but the organization only connects to the data-driven tech and paid media space via partners, like email and mobile messaging services built off liberal tech platforms.

Some Democratic data and media-buying experts are worried that the booming activism and fundraising of 2017 masks a deepening divide between the Republicans’ digital-first approach and more traditional liberal strategies.

“It’s clear Republicans are putting more time and energy into digital communications and making it a more integrated part of their strategies,” said Tim Lim, a partner at the digital media-buying agency Bully Pulpit Interactive and consultant to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. “The reality is we became the TV party and Republicans have taken on our mantle from 2012 as the party of innovation.”

Despite emerging organizations that unite liberal activism with data and tech, Lim said those sides are often disconnected.

CAP recently released app and website organizing tools for Republican health care opposition meant to “move people up the ladder of engagement,” Sussman said. These projects amplify messages over social or email and can expose people to political activism, but when the legislative calendar moves on they don’t retain value beyond a bump to CAP’s email database.

Other organizations shy away from data due to their political stances. One ACLU official said the group hesitates turning its data into data-driven outreach.

“We don’t really need to be a part of advanced or individual targeting to achieve our goals, and it’s something we’re really careful about because it’s antithetical to some supporters and ACLU positions,” she said, requesting anonymity because she’s not authorized to speak on behalf of the organization.

HaystaqDNA, a liberal data and analytics provider, has seen big jumps in demand for issues-based audience models like “ACA supporters” and “border wall opponents,” but not from activist groups like Emily’s List or NARAL, said CRO Andrew Drechsler.

Demand on the left is coming from statewide and US House races, said Paul Westcott, VP of sales and marketing and marketing at L2 Political, a voter data firm that distributes HaystaqDNA models.

“On the left it’s exploding at almost every level of the ballot,” Westcott said. It’s typical for a losing side, “but Democrat candidates are putting together databases and fundraising at a quicker pace than we’ve seen before.”

Liberal activists and data-driven communities are connected through personal networks, but they aren’t collaborating in a more formal way.

When the Trump administration in January refused to run scheduled digital media buys promoting health care enrollment, DSPolitical employees set up a fundraising account and offered to run the campaign at cost.

“A lot of liberal organizations called in wanting to help and were able to get the word out,” said Jim Walsh, DSPolitical’s co-founder and CEO.

Still, organizing across “the left” is a challenge because it’s “considerably larger and consists of more players and issue groups than on the right, where it’s more about directly working with media,” said one Democratic Party committee source who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“What you want is for each part of the chain to be additive, like 1+1=3, and that’s not the case right now.”

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