Mar 20, 2017 - Economy

How competitive politics sharpened data tools and tactics

Greg Ruben / Axios

A data technology boom over the past 15 years has shaped how campaigns use technology to source, distribute and leverage voter data. Each campaign cycle brought new technology tools and talent to the mix, and as the timeline below shows, underscores how much each party has learned from — and innovated on top of— the other's successes and failures.

Why it matters: After the 2016 presidential election, both Republicans and Democrats are evaluating their past digital performance and strategizing for upcoming races. After Trump's surprise victory, sources say a major operational shakeup is in store for Democrats, who've enjoyed the lead in the digital race for nearly a decade. GOP operatives, who significantly grew their data and ground games since 2008, are continuing to develop big data platforms and new media tactics to better target specific voters while also broadening their base.

If you were sick of online political ads this last cycle, just wait for 2020.

Timeline of Republican and Democratic advances in campaign technology use over the past 15 years:

2002: GOP tries to rebound from Gore ground game: Observing the sophistication of Al Gore's ground game in 2000, Republicans, led by the RNC's Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman, introduced a 72-hour program to organize field operations called "STOMP," the Strategic Task Force to Organize and Mobilize People for the 2002 midterms.

2004: Kerry lags behind Bush data infrastructure: STOMP served as a precursor for a Republican field data operation program called Team Leader in 2004. At that time, Republicans also brought in one of the first micro-targeting data firms called TargetPoint. John Kerry, in the meantime, found himself battling against an incumbent president with an established field program that Rove had strengthened while Kerry's team was focused on his primary run. In response to their loss, Democrats began to model their online toolset off of Team Leader to prepare for 2006 midterms.

2005: After Bush, GOP "dropped the data ball" and Howard Dean picked it up: A Republican source said that after Bush's 2004 reelection, Republicans "dropped the ball" on building and maintaining voter files and data, leaving an opening for Democrats to begin creating a solid data infrastructure for the next cycle. Learning from his 2004 loss, Howard Dean, the newly instated chairman of the Democratic National Committee, began advocating for a "50-state strategy" to mobilize the Democrats' ground game data collection to improve voter targeting.

2006-2007: Progressives formed their own data strategy: While the DNC strengthened their data tactics to support a primary candidate, progressives began to create their own data strategy. Former White House Deputy Chief of Staff for policy Harold Ickes created Data Warehouse (later called Catalist) with a $10 million endowment from George Soros to house and analyze data outside of the DNC for progressives to use, should they decide to challenge a candidate in the primary.

2008: Obama revolutionized the data campaign, and the GOP took notice: Obama's 2008 campaign victory is largely attributed to its in-house data and analytics team. The campaign hired a data analytics firm called Strategic Telemetry to do similar work to what TargetPoint had done for Republicans in the previous cycle, only this time they were more sophisticated. The campaign used Strategic Telemetry to match voter file data with publicly available consumer data from the census and voter registration files. After the success of Obama's 2008 data machine, the RNC began to look towards 2012, knowing there would be an open seat within their party, with no incumbent to provide a data infrastructure. The RNC put out a proposal and hired Data Trust for the job, who they still use today.

2010: Data technology sees major advances: After the 2008 campaign ended, the DNC began to build out the data technology infrastructure that would be used in the 2012 presidential election and on the Republican side, the RNC was also building their own internal data team. It was the first time that hardware, used to store large amounts of data, and cutting-edge tools, like programmatic ad buying and email list-matching, were being developed for commercial use.

2012: DNC taps Obama data talent while GOP focuses on strategy: Some of the DNC's top analytics talent moved to the Obama campaign to recreate the President's 2008 success. The DNC enlisted TargetSmart, a data technology and consulting firm, to help enhance 2010 voter files for 2012 by using analytics databases that could store data to quickly answer questions about voters. They also worked with Catalist to create data models to overlay onto programmatic ad buys that could be used for persuasion and fundraising efforts — a technique the Republicans would champion four years later. Meanwhile, Republicans — coming off another presidential loss — focused their efforts on consolidating data between Data Trust and the RNC to get ready for a 2016 data comeback.

2013: Campaign vets spur data vendor growth: After 2012, some of the Obama campaign staffers started new data firms, like Blue Labs and Civis Analytics. Both firms would be used to help the Hillary Campaign the following cycle. Republicans started to lay the groundwork for 2016, talking with different data providers and vendors that they could partner with to help model and analyze their voter files.

2016: Republicans and Democrats invest big time in data: By the time 2016 rolled around, both the DNC and RNC had racked up a significant number of data partners and vendors to create the most refined, and sophisticated voter files and models. Republicans worked with their vendors; Deep Root, TargetPoint. The DNC continued to work with TargetSmart to refine their data and the Clinton campaign worked with Blue Labs staff that had joined the campaign to focus on data analytics in-house.

We wrote two other stories on this topic:

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Civis Analytics worked with the Clinton campaign in 2016.

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