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For Tea Party Groups, That "Digital Gap" With Democrats Doesn't Seem As Wide

BY Matt Taylor | Tuesday, January 29 2013

Tea Party groups used their own software to support Republican Sen. Ted Cruz's primary campaign in Texas. Photo: Gage Skidmore

Given FreedomWorks chairman Dick Armey's tumultuous exit from the organization he helped found, a Republican Party now casting about for solutions to its electoral troubles could be forgiven for passing over Tea Party advice on organizational structure.

But if grassroots conservatives have technology tips to share, GOP insiders looking for an upgrade might want to lend an ear.

On Election Day 2012, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney — remember him? — had a secret weapon: "Orca," a mobile tool intended to keep reports streaming into campaign headquarters in Boston as volunteers tracked polls in swing states. Not only did the technology bedevil users across the country, but volunteers reported confusion with the entire Election Day process. In Chicago, Obama for America staffers watched data come in through an application that its own vendors had built and first launched years before. The election-day disaster was the final injury for a campaign beset with digital missteps of varying degrees and that had struggled, in the few months after the Republican primary election, to build a technology operation that could rival what Obama for America had been testing and tweaking all year.

Even as Romney's "Orca" was going belly-up on Election Day, another group of conservatives were enjoying the fruits of labor that began long before voters headed to the polls.

As the 2012 campaign began, American Majority Action, a conservative 501(c)(4) social welfare organization, invested in a new tool called "Political Gravity." While roughly comparable to what Democrats made available to volunteers for their own field operations, Gravity was a novelty on the right: It was a mobile interface into voter data designed for grassroots advocates. An organization with a Gravity license could direct activists to the doors of specific voters, offer them a script of what to say on arrival, and give them the chance to record the results of that voter contact. A smattering of other right-wing groups, including FreedomWorks, enjoyed the benefits of this new tool. While its deployment was limited and it had its own share of bugs, the software is a sign that there's still technological life among conservatives.

Gravity's two critical components are route optimization, so canvassers' time on foot (or in their cars) is used efficiently, and, as Orca intended, it allows users to transmit voter responses to survey questions back to a database in real time from the field. That removes the need for volunteers to wade through hundreds of walk sheets and tabulate responses by hand at campaign headquarters, where there is substantial margin for error (and precious time lost).

Political Gravity survey responses can then be used for microtargeted, issue-based appeals in the lead-up to voting, or to recalibrate get-out-the-vote efforts as campaigns come down to the wire.

Headed into the 2012 campaign, Republicans privately admitted that their voter data management software was beginning to show its age. State parties and other groups had multiple platforms to choose from for voter file management, if they could afford the prices. Gravity was one of a small handful of platforms hoping to fill the vacuum, and immediately found clients among smaller campaigns.

"We couldn’t afford Voter Vault," explains Chris Priest, a Republican who ran a successful, shoestring campaign for Morgan County, Alabama circuit clerk, referring to the voter database honed by Karl Rove and national Republicans in the past few election cycles. Besides, Priest says, a local meeting of conservatives, with the help of the state GOP, came to the conclusion that Political Gravity was better suited to the needs of the 2012 environment.

The software proved effective in its route optimization and seemed to generate genuine lists of independents and persuadable voters. Gravity occasionally froze on Blackberrys and some other mobile devices — but it never suffered an Orca-like, system-wide meltdown.

"I probably would have been more frustrated with it if I’d paid for it," Priest says, the state party having picked up the tab. "I’m glad it was free."

American Majority, which started out as a 30 percent stakeholder in the software, is pleased to have a bevy of small success stories like Priest's to lean on as it makes a concerted pitch to GOP campaigns. So pleased, in fact, that the group acquired Political Gravity in its entirety late in December. Apparently AMA is convinced Gravity's developers, led by Texas-based technologist Roy Magno — who serves as executive VP of the Dallas SEO firm SEOTA and is also a city councilman in Aubrey — are onto something big.

Not all of the campaigns that used Political Gravity were involved in small-bore local contests. Local Tea Party activists used Political Gravity to touch about 28,000 doors in Chester County, Pennsylvania, which went for Barack Obama by over 9 percentage points in 2008 but was carried by Mitt Romney very narrowly this November. Advocates point to similar bumps in some Wisconsin and Ohio counties where, even if Democrats held on statewide (as they did in Pennsylvania), Republicans were much more competitive than four years ago.

"There wasn’t widespread enough use to have a meaningful impact on the national level," argues Ned Ryun, president and CEO of American Majority Action. "That’s something we’re going to work on over the next 18 months, getting more buy-in from national and local groups."

Chris Littleton, co-founder of the Ohio Liberty Council, tested out Gravity in 14 counties in the Buckeye State during this past cycle. He was pleased with the software essentially doing what Orca was supposed to do — allowing get-out-the-vote organizers to have real-time information about who had voted and adjust their final push accordingly.

"During the early voting period, we could get the data from the Board of Elections, upload it into the system, and make any walk list after that day exclude anybody who had already voted in 2012," he told me.

FreedomWorks, the national Tea Party group that has made headlines in recent months for its bitter internal disputes and a hefty severance package provided to longtime chief and former GOP House Majority Leader Dick Armey, embraced Gravity nationwide. FreedomWorks claims its Gravity users knocked on more than 1.5 million doors and reached 2.5 million voters using the software.

"It was our primary door-to-door walking technology," says Ryan Hecker, a Houston-based attorney and Tea Party activist who serves as the organization's chief spokesman. As with others who used the technology, Hecker heard reports of bugs and hiccups on mobile devices, but activists loved the substance of the thing — its ability to generate efficient routes to reach local persuadable voters — even if they sometimes had to print out maps the old fashioned way.

"We had a year to test Political Gravity, work out the kinks, and get it working correctly for us," Hecker says.

FreedomWorks decided to embrace the technology as far back as October 2011, using it in what became a tight Senate contest between Republican Congressman Jeff Flake and Democratic candidate and former Bush administration Surgeon General Richard Carmona in Arizona. Flake would go on to win by less than 100,000 votes out of about 2.5 million cast.

Crucially, incoming data belongs to the local activists and groups that collect it. In the case of the Alabama GOP, which provided Gravity free-of-charge to candidates up and down the ballot, the state party decided to house its entire voter file directly within Political Gravity.

"Every group was kind of in their own little fiefdom in this company's servers," Hecker points out, a decentralization that may explain the lack of systemic trouble in the critical final 72 hours of the campaign.

It's not unheard of for Republican state parties to keep their data on their own systems and pass information on voter contacts back to the national party only every so often. This is different from how Democrats do things. On many Democratic campaigns, a state party owns the voter data and licenses access through NGP VAN's VoteBuilder software. The state data is also shared nationally to form an aggregate, 50-state voter file. Not every Democratic campaign uses VAN, but so many do that it is the de facto standard for the left.

That unity has drawbacks. If VAN doesn't have or won't provide a feature a progressive campaign wants, it has few other options. But after Obama for America used its constantly updated voter data from all over the country to power a more efficient victory, some Republicans are calling for a similarly top-down approach.

"If each state and race has their own fiefdom of data, that runs completely counter to what we as a party need to achieve," says a Republican digital strategist with close ties to the national party. "If 2012 showed us anything, you're always going to be stronger the more centralized your data is."

In the absence of a clear market winner when it comes to Republican data management, a thousand digital flowers bloom. Political Gravity is just one competitor. There's also Voter Vault 3, the latest iteration of Voter Vault. Steven Corey Adler, a co-creator of VoteBuilder who left VAN in 2005, is now selling a platform built from VoteBuilder's source code, but available exclusively to Republicans. And then there's NationBuilder, which reached a deal this year with the Republican State Leadership Committee to offer a discount on its software to state-level campaigns.

Tea Party Republicans may be hoping their technology does better now than their candidates did in 2012. The progressive CREDO Super PAC backed a number of successful campaigns across the country targeted precisely at turning first-term Tea Party representatives into one-and-done members of Congress. CREDO's executive director, Becky Bond, has said that smart targeting, experimentation, and data-driven decision making — thanks in part to the kind of up-to-date voter data that Gravity-style applications have given Democrats for several cycles now — lent to their winning strategy.

Ryun, of American Majority Action, is optimistic that Gravity will help Tea Party groups bring the same kind of campaigning into the mainstream of the right.

"It was a great start," Ryun says. "And unlike ORCA, it didn’t crash."

Matt Taylor is a techPresident contributing writer.