Maine state Rep. Henry Beck (D) predicts that when the dust settles after Nov. 4, his campaign budget will have topped out at just more than $10,000. It's a new spending record for him, the 28-year-old notes, in this, his fourth run for the Maine state legislature. But it's also just a fraction -- one-100,000th, actually -- of what Barack Obama spent last election cycle to be re-elected president of the United States of America.
Still, Beck has been using digital technology that was once only available to campaigns with million-dollar budgets: online advertisements that target voters based on their Web browser 'cookies.'
During the 2008 election cycle, when Beck, then 22, made his first successful run for his home state legislature, such digital wizardry seemed like black magic. In 2012, political cookies were still bleeding-edge tech. In 2014, it's a power available to the Henry Becks of the world with a few dollars and few clicks.
It's part of what both Democrats and Republicans identify as a powerful digital trend. The left has spent the last 10 years developing campaign technologies, whether it's online advertising, the modeling of voter behavior, or volunteer contact management. This cycle, they say, they have figured out how to get those technologies to play well together -- and in turn make them available to even the smallest campaigns.
What, exactly, gives a state representative the online ad sophistication to match Obama's? It's a new site, launched earlier this month, called DemocraticAds.com. The creators of the site, the D.C.-based firm DSPolitical, has bought up about 600 million browser cookies that contain personal details about some 150 million voters in the United States. Their service is able to take the information contained in a person's "cookies" and match it against data collected about their voting profile to serve up targeted ads. Campaigns are thus able to marry your online behavior -- what sites you visit -- with the characteristics that define you as a voter -- whether you are a registered Democrat, own a gun or go to express support for the environment.
In the old days, i.e., two years ago, hiring an ad buyer to generate such an ad campaign cost at least $20,000. But using DemocraticAds.com, Beck's ads target the most valuable voters in his district of 8,700 residents along the banks of the Kennebec River for a fee that starts at just $500.
Jen Nedeau is a senior director at Bully Pulpit Interactive, the Obama re-election campaign's preferred digital marketing firm. For even the best campaign strategists, she says, data-driven online ad buying was, until recently, a breakthrough. But the software the Obama campaign had to custom-build is now available as off-the-shelf software. "What we've been able to do," says Nedeau, "is to scale the model from the Obama '12 campaign down to local races, from Terry McAuliffe to Bill de Blasio to Marty Walsh," naming Virginia's Democratic governor, and New York City and Boston's new Democratic mayors respectively.
But go even farther down the ballot past the de Blasios and the Walshes to the Henry Becks, say Democrats, and the effect is still powerful. Jim Walsh is the chief executive of DSPolitical, the firm behind the D.I.Y DemocraticAds.com site. "Getting someone elected to a state legislator or a city council can conceivably have more impact on people's daily lives than getting someone elected to the U.S. Senate," says Walsh, "especially since you can scale it."
The trick, Democrats say, if figuring out how races big and small can share the costs -- and benefits -- of the best technologies.
New examples pop up all the time. The D.C. technology firm NGP VAN, whose software is used by nearly every federal-level Democratic campaign in the country, recently held a product launch in front of a packed house of more than 100 Obamans, campaign veterans, and non-profiteers in downtown Washington's Woolly Mammoth Theatre. There it introduced something called the Analytics Pipeline, a piece of digital plumbing that connects even the smallest campaigns to the top-dollar data analytics shops -- few of which existed more than a few years ago -- for just the $45.
Other tools are aimed at making the experience of being a progressive online feel seamless. Also unveiled at the Woolly Mammoth was ActionID, a single log-in for Democrats to use across their software projects. The tool, which was baked into the launch of DemocraticAds.com, allows progressives to jump from campaign management tools to online petitions and back again without friction, much as a single Google account unlocks everything from Gmail to Google Maps to Google Voice.
The ease of integration through ActionID, say its creators, make it more likely that a campaign would take a chance on unproven tech. Also in that vein is the Democratic National Committee's new API (also powered by NGP VAN's software and data). That chunk of code gives every technologically-savvy progressive the opportunity to plug into the national party's huge store of accumulated data, giving even a dorm-room developer a head-start in building advanced politically-intelligent apps with little effort.
Michael Czin is the national press secretary for the Democratic National Committee. Of the digital left, he says, "Everyone is working off the same hymnals."
Republicans don't necessarily disagree. Republicans are actively experimenting with a range of often-competing software packages. While the DNC has rallied behind the NGP VAN-powered VoteBuilder system, Republicans have seemed unable to settle on one software. DataCenter, the GOP's creaky data solution, is set to be replaced with DataBeacon, "a platform for GOP campaigns and organizations to interact with voter and volunteer data." But that hasn't happened yet. Meanwhile, individual campaigns and parties rely upon all sorts of voter management systems. The Ohio and Michigan Republican state parties have even opted to attempt to build their own.
"We are fragmented," says Vincent Harris, a Texas-based Republicans consultant currently working on the digital operations for the campaigns of Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, and other high-profile party figures. "And that has cost us a few [election] cycles in terms of the conformity of voter contact tools." Harris argues, though, that diversity can be a good thing -- both because it encourages companies to innovate and because it fits with Republican ideology. Says Harris, "we believe in competition. We believe in the best tools rising to the top."
Harris is echoed by Zac Moffat, the digital director for Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign and CEO of the firm Targeted Victory, which also sells pin-pointed online ads. And there's risk, Moffatt warns, in Democrats assuming that they've got politics' toughest digital problems all worked out. "They're layering," says Moffatt of the ecosystem-building approach, "and we're trying to disrupt."
Democrats say they're unlikely to settle into complacency given how fresh the memories of the bad-old-days are. Bryan Whitaker was the Democratic Party's chief technology officer through the 2012 election. "Forget about scores," Whitaker says of the advanced voter modeling now available to campaigns of all sizes. It wasn't long ago, he says, that "we were trying to keep consistent lists of whether people had voted or not."
Whether or not Democrats' bid to share up and down the ballot the tech they've discovered matters this election day remains to be seen. But Republicans are watching. The Woolly Mammoth event in August was livestreamed online. Republicans took pleasure in the fact that the event kicked off egregiously late, but even with their competitive instincts intact, they did little to hide that they were glued to their screens.
"Impressive set of announcements from NGP VAN," tweeted Patrick Ruffini, is a high-profile Washington, D.C.-based digital political strategist, "though," he added, "I think the GOP was out front on an API."