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Meet the ex-Democrat Developer Now Seeking to Sell Tools to the GOP

BY Nick Judd | Wednesday, May 18 2011

Steven Adler had to wait five years before he could get back into the political software industry. He did things like this in the meantime.

Say you're the co-founder of a company that quickly becomes part of the core infrastructure for Democratic political campaigns, you leave your company in 2005 with the source code to the software you built, and, five years later, you're in a position to use it. What do you do then?

If you're Steven Adler — that's Steven Corey Adler, who started what is now the VAN half of NGP VAN with Mark Sullivan, not Steven Adler, once of Guns 'n' Roses — you sell an updated version to Republican campaigns. This is highly unusual — software developers who get into politics often view their technologies as tools built to help their side win. And it's unclear how successful he'll be — Adler says he's having trouble getting his calls returned, which is unsurprising given that he's approaching Republicans as someone best known for working on software available exclusively to Democrats. But Adler's company, rVotes, joins Brave New Films alumni Jim Gilliam's upstart NationBuilder as a possible alternative for Republican campaigns as the Republican National Committee figures out what to do with the aging technology infrastructure that augments its ground game. Politico's Kenneth Vogel and Ben Smith report that the party views having the best data as part of its quest for a continued edge, both against the Democratic Party and against the rising tide of outside groups and unlimited money flooding the political right, after Citizens United and the burgeoning of the Tea Party movement. But people like Adler and Gilliam are reasons why attempting to retain tight control over data and information, in the networked world, may be a 20th-century approach to a 21st-century problem.

"When I met Mark, I was registered unaffiliated," Adler told me in a phone interview. "I kinda try to keep my personal political beliefs at arm's length ... I'm a computer guy, I'm a businessman, I'm a geek."

Sullivan, who now works with fellow partisans from NGP at NGP VAN, was unsurprised.

"I was overwhelmingly the political person" in the partnership with Adler, he told me. "Steve," he later added, "less so."

The way Adler tells the story, when he left VAN he had a copy of the codebase and could do anything with it except sell it for five years. In 2010, that clause expired; seeing a market demand on the Republican side, Adler, who by all accounts has a radical disinterest in politics, started handing out free licenses to his software. He's marketing rVotes as a more or less direct competitor to the Republican voter database software, Voter Vault.

In the meantime, he took other work — when I first spoke with him in December 2010, he had been up all night doing work on a cellphone project for a Japanese company — and, in his words, experimented. He produced a machine that made hydrogen out of tap water, for example.

Adler says he has a long list of features for Republican campaigns —"Macronanotargeting," he exclaimed, describing a feature that I did not fully understand, "It's like a shotgun that shoots lasers" — but even at no cost, suspicion or disinterest in dealing with a former Democratic operative seems to be killing his chances.

In the meantime, the Republican National Committee is working on a way to emulate the complex network of software developers and data architects that power the voter outreach of Democratic candidates — and, if Politico's reporting is to be believed, their chief concern is the ability to maintain control of that voter data, so that it couldn't be used by a renegade candidate to challenge the party machine.

I reached out to RNC New Media Director Todd Van Etten for this article, but haven't heard back.

Kenneth Vogel and Ben Smith frame the GOP's attempts to shore up its data operations as a move intended to defend the GOP's continued relevance in the face of a debt-strapped party and the growing influence of outside groups, fueled by unlimited and hard-to-track contributions. But as data about voters becomes more and more commodified, and data analysis tools become easier and easier to work with, it's unclear how much longer the kinds of third-party data Politico reports that the GOP is seeking to append to their existing lists will provide any sort of competitive advantage.

"There's a lot of voodoo sold to campaigns," Gilliam, who's operating on the premise that there's room to challenge the monopoly that the national parties now have on sophisticated data and data analysis tools for campaigns, told me recently in an email. "And if you're running a presidential campaign or a Senate campaign, some of it might be worth it. But everyone else is struggling with just the basics, and we want to make that really accessible and easy to understand."

The flipside of this, of course, is that toolkits for the insurgent come and go. Last year I wrote about Civio, a company that hoped to build a grassroots volunteer management system that would, in the words of cofounder Giselle Schmitz, be what they wished, the web platform for Obama '08 campaign volunteers, had been. Several months after seeking its first clients, the company is now out of business. It's rough out there for outsiders, especially when consultants and campaign managers often rely on word-of-mouth and reputation to make decisions about what software to buy and who to work with.

"Check back with me in a little while," Adler told me yesterday via email. "We'll either be out of business or taking over the world."

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