The busy 2016 election season is shaping up to be a momentous decision-making time for voters and the winners and losers may well be determined by the political teams who can effectively command a growing set of technology tools that are transforming the campaign world.
The Lincoln Labs Reboot Conference held this past weekend in San Francisco, which included top technology strategists for political campaigns, elected officials, and one Federal Communications Commission (FCC) member, provided a glimpse into not only who some of the technology players will be in this space, but how candidates for governor, senator and even President of the United States intend to take full advantage of the technology they offer. As Ginny Badanes, the Republican advisor for Microsoft’s campaign tech services group, told the gathering on Saturday, “2012 was about getting the data and 2016 will be about what you do with that data now.”
Large technology companies such as Microsoft and Google have built whole departments within their far-flung organizations to provide tech support to the many Senate, House, presidential and gubernatorial campaigns that will take place next year. Microsoft alone is offering data warehousing in their Azure cloud, along with analytics capabilities and visualization tools to aid candidates in their non-stop search for voters and money.
“Data set analysis is one of the key ways we are answering questions for our campaign,” said Scott Tranter, a partner with the data analysis firm Optimus who is working with the presidential candidate Marco Rubio.
An important subtext to the growing use of campaign technology is the story of what happened to Mitt Romney during the presidential race of 2012. When he was beaten by President Obama, Romney’s campaign came under fire for what was believed to be an inferior technology operation in contrast to his Democratic opponent. One session at the Reboot conference featured a panel that included Nate Lubin, the former director for digital strategy at the White House. Asked at one point whether the Republicans had learned their lesson and built a tech operation that could effectively compete with the Democrats in 2016, Lubin’s succinct answer was “No, but they are catching up.”
This was echoed by Lubin’s Republican counterparts on the panel. “We were a terrible place for a smart technologist to work,” admitted Andy Barkett, the former chief technology officer for the Republican National Committee (RNC). “But it is getting better.”
There are also a new set of companies and technology tools that Republican and Democratic strategists hope to draw from in the coming campaign season. Gerrit Lansing, the RNC’s chief digital officer, said that his group is making more use of messaging apps such as Slack, and another strategist talked about the data analytics and communications tools being provide today by i360, a data firm funded by the staunchly Republican Koch brothers, that connects comprehensive voter information with social media networks.
One of the political tech companies that only recently emerged from deep stealth mode is Brigade. Viewed as a social network for politics and funded by the Silicon Valley/Facebook billionaire Sean Parker, Brigade offered this weekend’s attendees a short demo of their evolving technology. Describing his preview as only one of “half a dozen” tools that his company plans to introduce, Brigade CEO Matt Mahan showcased a smartphone app that lets users air their views on a multitude of issues and link to a community where they can share ideas and viewpoints.
“We believe that this is going to be mapping influence in the political system that simply does not exist today,” said Mahan.
It wouldn’t be a political conference without some debate of the issues surrounding technology as well. One of the speakers was FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, one of two dissenters in the commission’s recent decision to approve the government’s rules for an open Internet, also known as net neutrality. Pai has been outspoken in his criticism that the issue became “politicized” by President Obama, and told the gathering the FCC was spending “hundreds of hours” to defend their decision in court when they should be focused instead on fostering broadband competition.
The rise of the ride sharing service Uber also drew comment and highlighted hopes among Republicans that they can use voter enthusiasm for disruptive technologies to garner support. Early last week, presidential candidate Jeb Bush visited Silicon Valley and rode to a meeting in an Uber car, leading him to enthusiastically endorse the ride-sharing economy. This drew a much less positive response from Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, which led the Republican strategist Barkett to remark, “There’s certainly a connection between how you use the tools of modern life and how modern you are perceived to be.”
In separate remarks at the Reboot conference, Congressman Greg Walden (R-OR), expressed his frustration with the rules that bind government in contrast with the freedom exemplified by the technology community. “The great thing about Silicon Valley is that you don’t have to get permission to create an app,” said Walden. Now we will get a chance to see how much of a say one or more of those apps could have in whether Walden and many of his colleagues win their elections in 2016.