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Dems Debate Whose Campaign Tools to Trust: NGP VAN or NationBuilder

BY Nick Judd | Wednesday, August 1 2012

As Democratic campaigners search for the best tools to track voters and voter contacts, some of them are looking at working with their voter data in a platform from the upstart nonpartisan firm NationBuilder instead of with software from NGP VAN, which many Democrats have used for years. And two of those candidates have received a strong message from their state Democratic Party organizations: Stick with the tools we’re already using.

Donna McAleer’s congressional campaign in Utah’s 1st Congressional District recently looked into exporting its voter data into NationBuilder from Votebuilder, a database accessible through NGP VAN software. Matt Lyon, executive director of the Utah Democratic Party, strongly encouraged McAleer’s campaign manager to stay put, he told me Tuesday. State parties own their voter files, the lists of voters used by modern campaigns to direct strategy, and decide the conditions vendors and campaigns need to meet in order to use them.

“What the state party and what I think is really important is making sure that we have a file that is central and that is used by all entities,” Lyon said Tuesday, repeating what he said he told McAleer’s campaign.

Reached Wednesday, McAleer campaign manager Hylton Early declined to comment.

Lyon said he’s advising campaigns they should stick with Votebuilder, which the state party provides to candidates along with training in how to use it. But he’s not standing in the way of campaigns wanting to make a move.

“If you feel like this [NationBuilder] is the best tool that you need for your campaign,” Lyon said Tuesday, repeating what he told the manager of McAleer’s campaign, “you guys are welcome to use it.”

McAleer’s campaign so far hasn’t gone ahead with plans to export voter data, Lyon said.

And other campaigns looking to experiment can expect a lot of encouragement to stick with Votebuilder instead, which people in some of the state parties say is too valuable to campaigns to abandon. At least one other campaign in another state has looked at using NationBuilder for field organizing and received much the same response, Stu Trevelyan, the CEO of NGP VAN, told techPresident.

Voter data can be as valuable as campaign dollars to a political campaign. The richer the data in a voter file — the more up-to-date detail and historical depth it holds about a voter’s background — the more valuable that file is to a campaign. The benefit to state Democratic parties of using Votebuilder, which VAN built for the Democratic National Committee, is that it allows them to collect data from all the campaigns in their state, add it to the historical trove they already have, and then share that corpus of knowledge with the candidates currently running. The campaigns’ continued efforts create more data that goes back to the state party, who controls the aggregate file in the state, and from there to the DNC. Rinse and repeat.

NationBuilder, a nonpartisan company, is becoming known in Democratic circles for other parts of its feature set. It also allows campaigns to set up websites at low cost, handle mass emails and manage social media. NationBuilder co-founder Joe Green says that the company is having productive conversations about those features with Democrats in other types of organizations, like the caucus committees that seek to achieve majorities in state legislatures by bringing in support for key candidates. Democratic candidates using NationBuilder for one thing or the other include Joe Mikloski, running for Congress in Colorado; Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer; Bill Shein, a Congressional candidate in Massachusetts; and Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) But it appears that a swath of the Democratic establishment is frosty on the idea of shifting away from a system that has grown over the years to power voter contact for a large number of campaigns, including, by Trevelyan’s count, 287 Democrats running for seats in the House of Representatives.

That campaigns looking to experiment with NationBuilder are being shepherded back to VAN came to light in the wake of a July 27 email from Nationbuilder co-founder Jim Gilliam alleging that NGP VAN employees were "both lying to and bullying" some of the Democratic candidates using NationBuilder.

"Some of you are also receiving threats from NGP VAN and being prohibited from importing your data into NationBuilder," Gilliam wrote. "I'm so sorry you are being treated like this."

Later in that email, he added:

If you are being bullied, please know that this pressure is not coming from the Democratic Party. It is coming from NGP VAN, a corporation trying to preserve their monopoly on a market with anti-competitive and unethical behavior. We encourage you to contact your state party, and if that gets you nowhere, call us.

Something seems to have happened between when McAleer’s campaign began to explore NationBuilder and when Gilliam sent his email, but the people involved won’t say what exactly it was. All Lyon will say is that campaigns are welcome to pick the tools they think are best for the job. And everyone is repeating, as if in chorus, that state parties are the ones who control their voter data.

Trevelyan says the allegation in Gilliam’s email — that NGP VAN has “prohibited” anyone from importing data — is false on its face.

“I don't believe that there was any change in their access,” Trevelyan said Tuesday, referring to the McAleer campaign, “and even if there were, it wouldn't have been something that NGP VAN did."

What’s clear is that Gilliam faces opposition from some people in Democratic politics who like the way things are now. Ann Fishman, executive director of the Association of State Democratic Chairs, an appendage of the national Democratic establishment comprising the chairs and vice-chairs of state Democratic parties, said that her organization is encouraging campaigns to stick with VAN.

"The State Democratic Parties own the voter file data in Votebuilder and decide what kind of companies the data can be shared with," Fishman said in an emailed statement. "State Democratic parties believe in building a proprietary technology infrastructure - by and for Democrats - in order to maintain our tactical advantage over our Republican opponents."

Her statement includes a reference to another problem the nonpartisan startup has with some people on the left. Gilliam started a controversy in June by announcing that his company had reached a licensing agreement with the Republican State Leadership Committee. Republican candidates for state legislature seats this year will have cheap access to NationBuilder as a result. Campaigns and causes from both sides of the aisle have already tested the software out or put it into use for races up and down the ballot. Newt Gingrich's presidential effort used the software in New Hampshire.

All of this has sparked an extended debate among progressives about how to think of software built for political campaigns. VAN and Votebuilder are cultural touchstones among progressive organizers, but the cheapest way to get access to the software, and the Democratic voter data, is to gain the blessing of an organization somewhere inside the Democratic establishment to do so. (Licenses are more affordable when subsidized by a Democratic organization.) This, one might argue, benefits incumbents and entrenched interests at the expense of insurgents, outsiders and reformers.

Gilliam has told me, in effect, that he thinks the concentration of power inside the bureaucracy of a decaying party system is a greater long-term threat to American democracy than what either party might do while in office. NationBuilder puts his business where his words are by providing alternative software that is available to anyone at low cost. Some campaigners agree with him, and some people are too concerned with the success of their own candidate or cause to worry about who else their chosen vendors do business with. But others argue that any improvements to NationBuilder — including those built in response to a bug report or a feature request from a Democratic candidate — will help a growing number of Republican candidates who use it, and that this is bad. People like Netroots Nation Executive Director Raven Brooks say this is reason enough for progressives to boycott NationBuilder.

All of this certainly points to a tough time for NationBuilder if it wants to compete with NGP VAN for field organizing clients. Beyond its other deals, Trevelyan also touts an agreement through which NGP VAN can provide Democratic voter data from all 50 states. But parties, and candidates, are free to take NGP VAN's software or leave it — and not all Democratic candidates are clients.

"It's not a monopoly," Trevelyan says, "it's a 50-state contract."