Why Data-Driven Political Marketing Is Easier For Dems

DvRAll presidential campaigns must contend with factors that tilt the playing field to one party or another, such as electoral districts, state demographics and incumbency.

For the 2016 election, Democrats appear to have solidified advantages in tech, data and paid media that represent a similar fundamental force working in their favor.

One straightforward example is TV inventory. Since a campaign reform law in 2002, the Federal Communications Commission has guaranteed candidates what’s called the “lowest unit rate,” meaning any TV station can only charge the lowest rate it applies to any inventory for a relevant time slot – endowing candidates with massive scale at a bargain.

The law itself is impartial, but Republicans raise and spend substantially more of their dollars through super PACs, which buy at market prices (or even at a premium) – leading to effectively lower TV rates for Democratic campaigns.

“There’s no question that Democrats get more bang for their buck on TV spending,” said Eli Kaplan, founding partner at the liberal digital agency Rising Tide Interactive. But, he cautioned, “that can be out-maneuvered if Democrats get so wildly outspent by Republican super PACs.”

On the digital side, the greatest advantage Democrats have over Republicans lies in the party’s collaborative data infrastructure, especially the ActBlue fundraising platform.

ActBlue allows any liberal candidate or cause to place frictionless fundraising buttons on emails and digital touch points, using data from partner campaigns to keep its archive of fundraising profiles sharp. Kaplan describes it as “the biggest differentiating advantage liberals have in data.”

The organization is not a business, but rather a PAC co-founded by an MIT computer science master’s grad and a theoretical physics Ph.D. candidate at Caltech.

“We’re explicitly not a business, which is something the Republicans don’t have an analogue for,” said Nate Thames, executive director of technical services at ActBlue.

Likewise, liberal data analytics firm Catalist claims to approach the market as a utility, serving a range of issue groups and campaigns that otherwise couldn’t afford pricey data services at market rates. The difference between party vendors may be philosophical, but it results in very different data-sharing practices that benefit Democrats.

This broader alignment of infrastructure with liberal causes may be helping Democrats with talent retention. Catalist CEO Laura Quinn notes that her company employs Ph.D. statisticians, mathematicians and software engineers, “all of whom could earn more at a Fortune 500 company or in the private market.”

Leaders at conservative data shops like Cambridge Analytica and i360, which is a part of the Koch brothers’ Freedom Partners PAC, have said they’re forced to outcompete (i.e., overpay) for econometric modelers and data wizards who are working at financial companies or in private equity.

OK, you say, but what about the recent data breach scandal on the Dem side, in which the Sanders team accessed proprietary information from the Clinton campaign via a glitch in the shared Democratic National Committee (DNC) database? The incident would seem to undermine the image of Democrats working together more cooperatively.

On the contrary: Embarrassing as it was, the episode also highlighted the Dem advantage.

“For all the bad press Democrats have gotten on their data operations, that all this data is being aggregated and will carry over years from campaign to campaign is a huge privilege,” said Kaplan.

According to Kaplan, the data breach shows the general risk of firewall failures within a database, but it also shows how unified the Dems are, operating what is essentially a massive data co-op. On the Republican side, meanwhile, the data environment is more siloed and competitive.

The Sanders campaign was quickly given back its revoked access to the DNC database, and the dispute failed to materialize as something that would destabilize the Democratic primary.

In the end, the loser, Sanders or Clinton, will get in line behind the other and his or her data will be used to help their former adversary win the general election. Republican senators like Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul – to say nothing of Donald Trump, the Republican leader in the polls – are not building an analogous data network.

“Campaigns develop their own sophisticated data sets and tools, and then typically those disappear at the end of a campaign,” said Kaplan. “Democrats have an answer for that and I’m not sure if a similarly good solution exists on the other side.”

Political realities impact media spending in other ways as well. Kurt Luidhart, a co-founder and media strategist at The Prosper Group, which handles digital buying for the Chris Christie super PAC America Leads, said that, on the Republican side in particular, “There’s a lot of competition for the same inventory and voter sets [that] campaigns are targeting.”

“With so many candidates, we have to be careful about where we find our audiences,” said Luidhart. “If there were fewer people in the race, there’d be more premium inventory available at a wider array of places. But we have to dig deeper and go wider to find the same opportunities.”

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