Every new campaign needs software systems to manage its website, voter analysis and outreach, email, phone banking, fundraising, advertising, canvassing, financial reporting and compliance. Decision makers quickly run up against a thorny question: should we stick with vendors that serve only our own party, or consider companies that work with both sides of the aisle?
The issue provokes strong opinions from campaign professionals, and there’s no clear consensus.
The poster child for the debate is NationBuilder, the widely-used CRM/website/emailing/recruiting/event management system that has become a major player in politics. NationBuilder is by no means the only vendor to work both sides but they are the most hotly debated, primarily because of their large footprint and starkly contrasting client list: both the Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders campaigns used NationBuilder. So did the Republican Party of Florida and the New Jersey State Democratic Committee. The NRA and NORML. Rob Portman and Jerry Brown. The Republican State Leadership Committee and Democratic Municipal Officials.
But while some campaigns are comfortable coloring outside the lines in this way, others struggle with the question. Those opposed to the practice cite three major objections:
1 - The other side will benefit from your campaign’s experience
The argument can be compelling. The two political parties derive lessons from the most recent election cycle, then strategize and apply those learnings to the next campaign. Political vendors do the same with their products. The improvements in the offerings of party-centric firms benefit that party’s campaigns exclusively, but improvements made by nonpartisan firms assist the other side as well. You don’t want to help the bad guys, do you?
This argument crumbles somewhat if the nonpartisan product is demonstrably stronger than the one offered by your side. Using an inferior product could put your campaign at a strategic disadvantage.
2 - The other side will benefit from your campaign’s money
In a Campaigns & Elections post from 2014, Republican Erik Nilsson of CMDI summarized this argument in words that could easily have been written by a Democrat: “Do you want the fees you pay to a bipartisan software vendor being used to improve the product for your competitor in the next cycle?”
There is of course an equally compelling counterargument: Would you like to see the fees of your competitor improve the product you use, thereby benefitting your campaign? Your answer might be yes, especially if you’re not too proud to learn from an adversary.
3 - Using nonpartisan vendors is disloyal
Many of my fellow Democrats, particularly those who have been in the trenches for years, consider nonpartisan providers to be the political equivalent of mercenaries: just out to make a buck regardless of the outcome. This is completely understandable: these partisan operatives have been fighting the good fight for decades, battling alongside vendors like NGP VAN and ActBlue, working to build and improve systems that give their candidates an edge. Turning your back on all that to hire a free agent feels nothing short of traitorous.
Democratic digital trainer Beth Becker (who is also my friend and DemCanCon colleague) bluntly expresses her dislike of NationBuilder: “Frankly I didn't have a problem with them until they proved how utterly they don't actually care about their clients when they sent out an email to their clients—a huge percentage of which are progressive organizations—bragging that NB helped to elect the very candidate (Trump) who is going to hurt their clients the most.” As a former candidate who used NationBuilder in my own campaign, I too am disturbed by the association with The Donald.
I comfort myself somewhat with the words of Michael Corleone: “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.” Campaigning is a merciless all-or-nothing endeavor. The simple up-or-down verdict is delivered with stark finality on Election Night. Your campaign doesn’t have the luxury of using second-best-in-class technology, regardless of the source.
And while NationBuilder swirls in controversy, there seems to be little concern over the biggest double-dip vendor of them all: Facebook, which is used by virtually every candidate from president to dog catcher. Indeed, a campaign with no Facebook presence could scarcely be considered credible. Similarly, Twitter and other social media platforms accommodate all comers, as do virtually all advertising outlets. Campaigns have no qualms with any of them. Beth says that’s because—unlike NationBuilder and other campaign software systems—social media outlets were never designed as organizing tools.
Ultimately, each candidate and campaign team has a duty to themselves, their supporters and their donors to capture every advantage and squeeze every dollar. Features, usability, support and cost are all important considerations in selecting a software solution. If after careful consideration the optimum solution comes from a vendor whose sympathies lie in the same direction as yours, your decision is easy. But what if your best chance for victory includes a nonpartisan software system—maybe even one that gloats over its relationship with Donald Trump? What do you do then?
(Full disclosure: My 2016 congressional campaign utilized both NGP VAN and NationBuilder. We used NGP VAN for phonebanking, canvassing and compliance and NationBuilder for our CRM, website, and email client.)
Andy Millard is the conference organizer for the Democratic candidates conference. His eclectic background includes roles as an educator, small business owner, financial planner, author, event planner and congressional candidate.