Groundwork: the US political tech firm that everyone will be talking about

The stealthy, Eric Schmidt-backed startup that’s working to put Hillary Clinton in the White House

An under-the-radar startup funded by billionaire Eric Schmidt has become a major technology vendor for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign…

The Groundwork is one of the Clinton campaign’s biggest vendors, billing it for more than $177,000 in the second quarter of 2015, according to federal filings. Yet many political operatives know little about it…

Democratic political operatives and technologists said that the Groundwork’s focus is on building a platform that can perform the critical functions of modern campaigning.

These sources tell Quartz that the Groundwork has been tasked with building the technological infrastructure to ingest massive amounts of information about voters, and develop tools that will help the campaign target them for fundraising, advertising, outreach, and get-out-the-vote efforts—essentially to create a political version of a customer relationship management (CRM) system…

The range of tasks anticipated for this platform [include] volunteer coordination, fundraising, social-media marketing and events…

That kind of database integration and number crunching may not sound terribly exciting. But building a list is the foundation of any campaign, and doing so digitally, with analytics and communications tools scaling across a nationwide campaign—with hundreds of paid staff and tens of thousands of volunteers—is no easy job, even for experienced engineers.

And it is an essential one for modern-day campaigns. [Quartz]

The full piece on Groundwork is well worth a read, especially as it also includes an aside about the quesiton of how useful really all the glitzy data, technolgy and optimising work is which tends to grab the headlines. But does it secure the votes?

Although Obama’s technology staff downplays credit for his election victories, there’s no doubt they played a crucial role. One former Obama staffer, Elan Kriegel, who now leads analytics for the Clinton campaign, suggested the technology accounted for perhaps two percentage points of the campaign’s four percent margin of victory in 2012.

Two percent isn’t bad, but is only two percent. That’s why, as I wrote when reviewing The Victory Lab (a must read if you’re interested in this topic):

Does that one letter versus one phone call test really say something useful for the real world of campaigning where people are on the receiving end of multiple other forms of communication, let alone factoring in the other ways their votes are influenced too?

What is more, do you therefore end up concentrating on how to optimise different tactics that, even when added together, are only a tiny factor in deciding an election, and as a result spend time and effort looking in the wrong place for the real secrets to electoral success?

That risk is personified in The Victory Lab by the aforementioned poster boy for randomised testing in politics, the American Republican Rick Perry. For a few years in the first decade of this century he was the icon for evidence-based campaigning, assembling a star-studded cast of political science advisors, letting them loose testing, generating evidence and applying the lessons.

Then came his disastrous bid to be the Republican Presidential nominee for the 2012 contest, leaving him looking a risible figure after he failed in a TV debate to recall the name of one of the three federal government agencies he had pledged to axe.

For all the interesting and smart evidence-based approach to political campaigning displayed by his campaign, it was myopic. Perry’s political career would have been better served by a wider perspective that remembered how often candidates get made or unmade by striking debate performances or speeches. Fiddling around with whether to make a third phone call to a subset of voters would have been better replaced by more of a focus on how to give brilliant speeches and how to shine in debates.

Hence too the well-made points in another book, Hacking the Electorate:

The big data, grassroots-fired war of microtargeting isn’t so much about super accurate data on voters linking cereal eating preferences to views on immigration as about careful computer programmers pulling in a limited number of rather prosaic publicly available datasets. That which generates the media excitement is but a small adornment on top, adding little to the accuracy of the public data or purposes to which campaigns put it.

The Quartz piece echoes this point and includes a link to an excellent article from a couple of years back which takes a look at the Obama 2012 campaign and the balance between yes, tech and data being important and no, it not being able to turn an unpopular candidate into a popular one:

After the last presidential election, wide-eyed pundits hailed a brave new era of political campaigning, crediting Obama’s victory to his team’s wizardry with data. The hype was premature. Here’s what the story of 2012 really means for the future of politics.

You can (and should) read that story in full over on the Pacific Standard website.

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