The Fight Over Political Data: RNC vs. i360 and the Unlock the VAN Movement

There has been a feud brewing in the political industry regarding voter data over the past few years and it has continued to escalate. While the circumstances are a bit different on the left and the right, the fact remains the same: those who control the data, hold the power. This is a brief summary of the ongoing battles in the field, but for a longer history, I highly recommend the book “Prototype Politics: Technology-Intensive Campaigning and the Data of Democracy” by Daniel Kreiss.

Kreiss’s book released last June looks back to 1998 to cover the history of the use of technology in campaigns.

Republicans: RNC (GOP Data Center) vs. i360

2014 Election Cycle

This ongoing battle has played out in the media over the past 4 years. i360 is a product of the Koch Network. Millions of dollars have been poured into i360 in an aim to create the best voter contact platform in the world. i360’s mantra is “Data is the difference” and they were built to correct the gaps seen between the RNC and DNC’s data operations in 2012. i360 and similar products became popular in 2013 as the RNC was working to modernize their offerings. NationBuilder and others have looked to be complimentary pieces for the RNC and DNC, but i360 was unique in that it is a direct competitor to the RNC. Behind the scenes, the RNC and i360 tried to play nice. This was a mutually beneficial arrangement. The RNC gained the potential to collect all of the data being collected by i360 clients and i360 gained legitimacy. i360 tested and optimized their solution over the 2014 election cycle by campaigns that used the platform as well as their organizing groups like Americans for Prosperity. After that cycle, they had a bit of a “coming out party” in this Politico article.

2016 Election Cycle

In 2015, the feud escalated as Chairman Reince Priebus looked to gain control over the RNC’s data operation. Former RNC Chairman Reince Priebus believed the RNC needed to be the proper custodian over the party’s master file and questioned the loyalty of the Koch brothers. The RNC didn’t renew its deal with i360 and the RNC became concerned that the original agreement gave the Koch brothers too much control over the party.

The RNC’s Chief of Staff Katie Walsh said in June 2015:

“I think it’s very dangerous and wrong to allow a group of very strong, well financed individuals who have no accountability to anyone to have control over who gets access to the data when, why and how.”

Ultimately, it’s clear that i360 was aiming to be the NGP VAN of the right and eliminate potential competition. It also wasn’t helping that the RNC was facing headlines in the media like “Republicans lag behind on voter information.” In 2015, i360 had a superior product and the RNC was in an awkward position.

Eventually both sides ended up coming to a compromise with a new contract, but it was clear that the war would continue. In the background, the RNC staffed up and built out their data operation.

A completely revamped version of GOP Data Center was launched in August 2015 and their idea of political data as a service went public. This solution was a game-changer. It began to bring parity between the RNC and i360. i360 still had the favored user interface that led to a more positive user experience, but it brought the RNC back into the game and less reliant on i360. The RNC began to view Data Center as the hub where all data would be plugged into through API’s. Whether it be field, survey, donor information, voter scores, or digital efforts, their goal was focused on making sure the data was the best it could be. This was a dramatic shift from the approach of i360 or NGP VAN that sought to be the best a one-stop-shop. The RNC approached the situation with a capitalistic approach to data.

The battle continued during the 2016 election cycle as dozens of campaigns used i-360, while the RNC data operation was lauded for helping Donald Trump to victory. At the crux of the argument though, is where is the data that’s being collected, being housed? Each voter identification and piece of information put into a system can be used for voter modeling and predictive analytics. It’s also incredibly valuable when it comes to maximizing donations from supporters. As we enter a world where chat bots may allow campaigns to utilize Facebook in the same way they previously used phones, the organization that has a voter file with Facebook profiles linked to it holds a distinct advantage over any potential competition. On the right, this is why i360 and the RNC will continue to fight to be the “home” of campaign data.

The Poli-Tech Battlefield on the Right

Another interesting thing to note on this battle is that there are dozens of other companies in the space. NationBuilder is a key player that was used by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in 2014 and by the Trump campaign to an extent in 2016. My fellow UF advisory board member Ian Patrick Hines explained back in 2015 how NationBuilder could be used complimentary with the RNC data:

Other companies have approached their product placement in the same way. Campaigns that use RNC data typically utilize a technology stack that includes, at a minimum, a walk and a call application. Companies like Advantage, FLS Connect, eCanvasser, FieldEdge, Polis, CallFire, CallHub, Crowdskout, and many others provide one or more of these functions for campaigns on the right. Beyond those though, there are also companies like L2 Political that provide data.

Recently, the Lincoln Network launched an “App Marketplace” that will provide real, unbiased poli-tech reviews.

Led by another of my fellow UF advisory board member Aaron Ginn, it will be exciting to see how the marketplace is opened up over the next two years.

What’s not typically discussed publicly is the distinct advantage i360 and the RNC have in the marketplace. Despite what they may say, it’s virtually impossible for i360 to turn a profit based on what they’re charging. Looking purely at their Open Secrets report referred to earlier, i360 is dramatically undercharging compared to competitors. This is an intentional move to scoop up market share. With the backing of the Koch brothers, i360 has a luxury that many others do not. Even compared to companies that only do a piece of the puzzle like Advantage or FLS Connect, i360 is competitively priced. The RNC has a massive advantage by highly encouraging that their data should be used in conjunction with their field victory programs. Certain vendors are “approved” by the RNC based on their capabilities, which helps those companies sell to campaigns. Going forward, it’s obvious that i360 will need to prove it’s clearly better than the RNC due to the inherit advantages that come with working directly with the national party.

Democrats: Unlock the VAN Movement

While the battle on the right has been going on for a long time, the battle on the left has only heated up recently. Back in the mid-2000’s when Howard Dean was DNC Chairman, the DNC chose to hire a vendor to maintain a national database of Democratic voters. That company still has the contract and its name is NGP VAN. Essentially, NGP VAN has a complete monopoly over data and technology on the left. This is largely because Democrats won in 2008 and 2012 and didn’t have to worry about being questioned in the area. Barack Obama’s campaigns were heralded for their use of technology while Republicans were chastised. Why worry about competition when NGP VAN was better than the rest?

This line of thinking has proven to be highly faulty. There were grumblings prior to the 2016 election. First, there was the DNC “Datagate” situation in December 2015. Long story short, a security lapse by NGP VAN led to Bernie Sanders staffers accessing proprietary data to the Hillary Clinton campaign. This led to the Sanders campaign having their access to VoteBuilder temporarily revoked and accusations lobbed from the Clinton campaign. Ultimately, it was a big black eye to the Democratic National Committee.

After this episode, vendors began to smell blood in the water. My friend Will Conway from NationBuilder wrote a post explaining why the NGP VAN model was highly problematic. In many ways, this could be considered the precursor to the “Unlock the VAN” movement. Conway said:

The Bernie Sanders data fiasco exposed a long-standing problem with NGP VAN’s model that sucks for democracy.
In the middle of the mudslinging between Hillary Clinton, the DNC and Bernie Sanders is a basic truth: a piece of campaign technology broke because it’s bad. The reason the software is bad is not because the developers at NGP VAN are in some way inferior — it’s because there is no incentive to improve their product.
Here’s why: NGP VAN has a contract with the Democratic National Committee in which their customers’ data is owned and retained by the DNC. In exchange, the DNC provides data to NGP VAN customers — those using NGP VAN get the data of every previous NGP VAN user and the DNC, which basically covers every Democrat to run for office in modern history. The advantage for these campaigns is tangible immediately: oh look, here’s everyone who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 in the 3rd Congressional District of Iowa. Here are the people we know who are education voters in New Hampshire, economy voters who vote in primaries in South Carolina, et cetera.
The DNC has a crazy amount of information, and it gets better and better as time passes, because hundreds of Democratic campaigns across the country use NGP VAN to run campaigns on a daily basis. If one campaign discovers that John Doe moved to a new address, every Democratic campaign in the country knows immediately.
But here’s the problem: campaigns don’t actually own the relationships they build in the software. The Democratic National Committee does. The deal struck with the DNC ensures an incredible competitive advantage for NGP VAN: use our software, or be cut off from all Democrats’ data. Moreover, if you break our rules, we’ll kick you off the platform and cut you off from your own data.

On top of the issues at the top of the ticket, down ballot, state parties became very stingy about protecting incumbents and wouldn’t provide data to primary challengers. As first reported on by Campaigns and Elections:

New Jersey Democrat Alex Law, 25, said he wanted to go the partisan route when it came to data, but he needed the state Democratic committee’s approval to get access to NGP VAN at below market rates.
In late June 2015 as he geared up for his congressional run, Law requested NGP VAN access. But because he was challenging Rep. Donald Norcross, Law said the state committee deliberately tried to sabotage his campaign by not even responding to his request. In fact, it wasn’t until mid July 2015 that he got a response — a huge period of time for a primary campaign.“They couldn’t give us access to even purchase SmartVAN without getting a ‘no’ from the state party, and the state party wouldn’t even give them an answer until we forced them to give an answer,” said Law.
Once NGP VAN received their “no” from the state party, Law said the company offered him access to SmartVAN, a slightly different version of VoteBuilder that was costlier. “I looked at it, and it made no sense,” Law said.
Law’s campaign decided to go with L2 instead. “The only other option than that was to go to the county clerk and request all the voter registrations and build a housing system that could do filtering,” he said. “The data that you get from the county in New Jersey is almost [unusable]. It would have been extremely difficult.”
Law, whose total budget was around $75,000, ultimately lost to Norcross, a former state senator, in the June 7 primary 70 to 30 percent. Law credits his 23,689-vote total as a first-time candidate to his data provider. “L2 gave us the base to create other tools that we needed for the campaign.”

After Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016, vendors started to express louder concerns about NGP VAN.

Ad Astra Group, Aristotle, cStreet Campaigns, eCanvasser, icitizen, iDONATEpro, Mosaic Strategies, NationBuilder, Organizer, Run for Office, SparkInfluence, Tectonica, and VoteRockit joined together to start a movement they call “Unlock the VAN.” Together, they sent a letter to the Democratic National Committee with a message:

To the Democratic National Committee:
Empower Democratic candidates & committees with equal access to Democratic Party data regardless of which tools & technologies they choose to use.
Never before have so many Democrats stepped up to run for office. This wave of enthusiasm from new candidates all over the country is vital to democracy.
Every one of them deserves their fair shot. And to succeed, these candidates need great technology and access to critical data on their voters.
But for the last 10 years, one company has held a monopoly on control of the Democratic Party’s voter data. That company, NGP VAN, uses its monopoly to deny candidates the opportunity to use tools that could give their campaigns the upper hand.
The Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) exclusive relationship with this vendor leaves candidates with an impossible choice: access their own party’s voter data, or freely choose any technology they believe will help them win.
When the DNC first negotiated this exclusive relationship, Voter Activation Network (VAN) — who’d later merge with another campaign tech company, NGP — was practically the only game in town.
Times have changed, and so should the DNC’s outdated support of tech monopoly.
We’re in the midst of a civic tech renaissance. From real-time mobile canvassing apps like Organizer to political crowdfunding services like Crowdpac — startups are building new, affordable tools that could provide upstart Democrats a much-needed competitive edge.
Sadly, if you’re a candidate keen on using the data collected by Democratic campaigns before you — you won’t get to take advantage of all this vibrant marketplace has to offer.
The DNC says their data can live in VAN and VAN alone. And what does NGP VAN say? “If you are our direct competitor,” don’t even think about integrating with any of our products.
This is what monopolies do.
“When big business can shut out competition,” Senator Elizabeth Warren told a crowd last year, “entrepreneurs and small businesses are denied their shot at building something new and exciting … prices go up and quality suffers.”
Lack of competition stifles innovation, both in candidates and in technology. And innovation is what Democrats need — now more than ever.
With everything at the DNC now on the table, including “contracts with outside vendors,” and the search for a new Chief Technology Officer just beginning, this is the time to start talking about unlocking the VAN.
Let the DNC know you agree, not only in the spirit of competition and innovation — but in direct service to this surge of new candidates, the future of the Democratic Party.

What’s most interesting about the Unlock the VAN movement, is the companies are asking the DNC to do exactly what the RNC did two years ago. It’s unclear if the movement will lead to any long-term changes, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see the grassroots push new DNC Chairman Tom Perez into this direction.

Looking to the future for all sides, integration will be the key for any technology companies looking to make a splash. Campaigns can no longer afford to have siloed data.