When NGP VAN touted new features of its software at a get-together in Washington last month, the Democratic tech and data firm attracted some gentle ribbing from its decidedly non-partisan competitor. With a touch of sarcasm, NationBuilder wrote on Twitter: "Looking forward to integrating with the new #ngpvannext open APIs."
The investor-backed NationBuilder was referring to the technology that helps feed data from systems like NGP VAN's into tools and platforms that put it to use, such as mobile apps used by door-to-door campaign volunteers. Because NGP VAN stipulates that developers tapping its data pipeline cannot be direct competitors or use it to benefit Republicans, NationBuilder would not be able to access it, making it more of a partially-closed API than a wholly-open one.
The interaction brought an ongoing debate in political tech into focus. Should the technology companies that work with political candidates and organizations be partisan?
At the NGP VAN event the company's dedication to serving only clients on the left was palpable amid a theater full of party faithful and left-leaning tech evangelists. At the event, the Democratic National Committee announced an official alignment with NGP VAN, essentially christening it as the single platform with which other app developers, ad platforms and analytics software should integrate in order to be relevant to Democratic clients.
Over the years as campaigns and advocacy groups have adopted digital media tools, technology firms serving the political market have sprouted. And often those companies make a point of working only with clients on the right or left. The strategy is an extension of the way other sectors like media agencies or polling firms serving political clients operate, working with only right- or left-of-center clients.
"I do think partisanship has a role because of the trust factor," said Zac Moffatt, co-founder of Republican digital ad firm Targeted Victory, who suggested that it is important for marketing tech firms to be partisan "because you're touching so much of their data."
Though most people interviewed for this article stressed that the quality of the technology matters most, for many the decision comes down to personal beliefs and allegiances. "For some people, it is a philosophical decision," said Colin Delany, a digital strategy consultant serving advocacy and political clients on the left. The basis of that philosophy, he continued, is "to help build up this ecosystem of technology companies that support your side."
The fact that the DNC has made NGP VAN its platform of choice for data management, grassroots organizing and fundraising reflects the party's broader mission to get candidate campaigns and organizations on the left geared up to use the latest tools in a cohesive manner. But it's also a natural evolution as leaders emerge among digital tech companies, especially those serving the left.
"It could easily be a sign that the field of GOP technology is still lagging behind the Democrats, that no comprehensive set of tools has emerged as a clear winner [on the right]," said Mr. Delany.
While he said he sees the value in using partisan technology for some purposes, Mr. Delany said sometimes he chooses tools that aren't aimed at the political market at all; rather, he might cobble together tools geared towards the enterprise market such as Salesforce and MailChimp.
"What we do is inherently political in that whatever we do affects the values and the direction of the country," said Christopher Massicotte, former Democratic campaigner and COO of Democratic digital ad firm DSPolitical. "It drives me nuts when I see NationBuilder working with a candidate [who's, for instance,] working against marriage equality."
"Partisan political technology companies can partner more closely with campaigns, leading to better products that give the campaigns an edge. It's better for both the candidate and the company," Stu Trevelyan, CEO and president of NGP VAN told Ad Age in July.
Despite a growing array of partisan tech firms, some companies make a point of broadcasting their non-partisanship as a selling point.
Audience Partners, which uses voter data to target online ad campaigns, has branded itself as an "avowedly non-partisan" company that serves non-political clients such as healthcare companies. Yet Audience Partners encompasses Republican-leaning digital ad firm CampaignGrid.
"We're there for all candidates of all persuasions as an option. People buy our products because they want to, and not because they have to," said John Aristotle Phillips, CEO of non-partisan voter data and campaign tech firm Aristotle. "These non-partisan tools work equally well for D's and R's, and they are essential for getting your ideas in front of the voters," he continued. "They don't require the consent or permission of the party or the beltway crowd."
NGP VAN competitor NationBuilder also wears its non-partisanship on its sleeve. "NGP VAN is available only to candidates blessed by the Democratic Party, while NationBuilder does not discriminate based on party, or any other criteria," notes the campaign management tech company on its website.
"NationBuilder has always been non-partisan because denying access to technology because of someone's political beliefs is wrong, and it certainly isn't democracy," said Jim Gilliam, CEO of NationBuilder, which has scored venture capital funding totaling around $14 million over the past couple years.
"A lot of the companies like NationBuilder knew that they wouldn't be able to survive just on the progressive side…and their investors weren't willing to take that risk," said Mr. Massicotte.
Others on the left prefer more competition even if from firms that don't align exclusively with their side. "I want a company like NationBuilder to do well in part because I don't want anyone to have a monopoly on Democratic political technology," said Mr. Delany.
"I've seen more of a backlash in terms of non-partisan political software, like NationBuilder, entering the market against established partisan software players like NGP VAN and Blue State Digital," said Patrick Ruffini, co-founder of Republican analytics and polling firm Echelon Insights and former RNC digital strategy director. Blue State handled digital work for both of President Barack Obama's presidential campaigns and was acquired by WPP in 2010.
"On the Republican side, this has been less of a problem because there wasn't as much partisan software to begin with," added Mr. Ruffini.
Some argue that as dominant players serving only one side of the aisle emerge, competition and, in turn, tech innovation could be hampered.
"If you're the only dominant leader you don't have to improve," said Mr. Moffatt. "The Soviet model didn't work for the Soviets too long."
Joe Fuld, president of Democratic digital firm The Campaign Workshop disagreed, suggesting that partisan tech firms are comprised of "people who are partisan in nature working together to build tools that are reflective of the communities they're trying to reach. ... I don't see that it's stifling innovation at all."