What Becomes Of A Campaign’s Data Assets When A Presidential Run Is Suspended?

prezdeferredHave you ever wondered why presidential candidates only “suspend” their campaigns, even when they’re dropping out?

It isn’t pride, it’s just good business.

When the candidate is gone, the campaign’s valuable tech and data assets remain.

Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign, for instance, ended suddenly and in considerable debt, which it helped pay down by selling or renting its proprietary data.

Mark Stephenson, founder of the Republican consultancy Red Oak Strategic and former chief data officer to Walker’s campaign, gave a sigh of aggravation about the campaign’s valuable email list, which has been pilfered so thoroughly by former rivals that it’s practically an inside joke among professional Republicans.

“It isn’t a new thing,” said Stephenson. “Everyone rented the Romney email list too.”

Matt Oczkowski, chief digital officer on the Walker campaign, said the hardest part is watching great, long-term products languish in “the graveyard of Republican IP (intellectual property) technology.” While the email list was being picked clean, “Walkerworld struggled to find homes for a lot of software that was the best around at the time,” he said, pointing to projects like the campaign’s cross-channel donation platform and data modeling process.

Oczkowski said it’s nearly impossible for the campaign committee to sell long-term tools because of the constant iteration and maintenance required to keep them sharp. The Democrats and Republicans each have a dedicated firm, NGP VAN and the Data Trust, respectively, tasked with keeping political tools and databases honed beyond presidential cycles.

Unfortunately, campaign tech can also be so personalized to a specific candidate that the learnings don’t necessarily apply to somebody else. Oczkowski speaks from experience: After Walker’s campaign ended, he became head of product at Cambridge Analytica, the data vendor tied to Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign.

Ron Schnell, the former CTO of Sen. Rand Paul’s “suspended” presidential campaign, noted that in politics the more work that goes into a product the less desirable it may be on the open market.

Schnell pointed out that campaigns have strict limits on the amount an individual donor can give ($2,700 in the primary and then $2,700 in the general election), which can come from a direct donation or purchasing merchandise from a campaign’s online shop. If a donor goes over this limit, the money is returned – and the gear is not – so a mechanism for exactly tracking and then cutting off donors has to be baked into the technology.

“This adds some serious complexity to the database architecture,” said Schnell, but also makes it near worthless in an actual ecommerce capacity.

On the flip side, some campaign tech was simply built too quickly or narrowly and needs to be rebuilt for more mainstream use, said Aharon Wasserman, who worked as deputy field director on Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and is now VP of marketing at NGP VAN.

Despite these difficulties, some companies have thrived repurposing old presidential tech. For example, the Republican programmatic provider Targeted Victory expanded its footprint and helped build out wider party applications after its co-founder, Zac Moffatt, ran the digital operation for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.

Tech leaders from both parties usually point to Civis Analytics as the shining example of repurposed campaign tech. Dan Wagner, President Barack Obama’s former chief dataanalyst, translated the campaign’s modeling into a powerful Democratic data vendor (backed by Google chairman Eric Schmidt).

Similarly, the customer optimization company Optimizely was co-founded by two Obama and Google vets who spun their expertise into a successful, venture-backed startup.

Partisan divide

The Republican side is more fractured, which many sources attribute to a party philosophy that stresses competitiveness and market values more than do liberals, who take a more collective approach.

But Republicans have made progress in centralizing their data network. Consider the Data Trust, which the Republican National Committee uses to aggregate knowledge about American conservatives. (Essentially every Republican campaign gets data from Data Trust, and is obligated to return voter-targeting info of equal value.)

The Data Trust once feuded with i360, the data operation within the Koch brothers’ Freedom Partners organization, but that resolved into a functional partnership once party leaders recognized a need to catch up with liberals.

Still, “there are a lot of organizations competing on the conservative side, and they don’t have as sophisticated a collaborative model,” said Wasserman.

So how does this technology ultimately get sold? “There is no auction or eBay for assets after a campaign is done,” said Oczkowski. Consequently, it often comes down to personal ties.

“It’s a small, insular world,” Oczkowski said, “and the campaign director maybe has 10 or so people he knows and thinks would be a fit or could afford it.”

And as one would expect, intraparty politics are a dictating force.

For instance, NGP VAN suffered a breach last December when a coding bug allowed an analyst at Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign to access data from Hillary Clinton’s account. In the immediate aftermath of the affair, it looked like the end of Democratic civility, with Clinton’s camp erupting in fury, Sanders threatening to sue the Democratic National Committee for rescinding his access to NGP VAN (which would functionally kill his campaign) and the core job of the Democrat’s most important technology provider publicly undermined.

But instead of turning into the conflagration that the breach could (perhaps even should) have caused, the affair disappeared like smoke in the wind. The Sanders team was given its NGP VAN access back and the Clinton campaign moved on without so much as a scar.

Would Republican leaders similarly forego personal political scores for the greater good of the party?

It can be hard to unravel the business of political coalition-building from often bitter personal disputes. Sen. Marco Rubio’s campaign recently purchased Gov. Chris Christie’s email list, even as Rubio was counterproductively lobbying for Christie’s support.

Christie endorsed Donald Trump last Friday.

Oczkowski said the extensive donor data files and proprietary tech being developed by Cambridge Analytica for Cruz are assets owned by the campaign, “so if Ted Cruz didn’t want to play nice, he wouldn’t have to.”

“I’ll say this, though: Marco Rubio will not be getting it.”


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