The Democratic Party has made sweeping moves in recent years to help ensure that its candidates and like-minded organizations have access to its voter data and integrated technologies. But during the primaries this year, a combination of obstacles and anxieties kept some challengers to incumbents from taking advantage.
Combined with disputed allegations of security vulnerabilities at the Democratic National Committee's preferred data platform, their experiences are highlighting questions about the party's strategy.
A veteran voter-data firm called Aristotle is taking advantage with ads taking on the party's preferred vendor, NGP VAN, and arguing that a favored, central data platform makes it too easy to stifle newcomer candidates while increasing the risk from breaches. Aristotle plans to spend $250,000 through the end of the year and potentially hundreds of thousands more next year on its campaign.
The ads target a company that most people outside politics have never heard of, but they illuminate the building tension between emerging Democratic candidates and the party establishment.
"The national committees are in the business of incumbent protection, and incumbent protection at its most perverse form includes shutting off access to primary challengers," said Aristotle CEO John Phillips.
Taking on the party chair
When Tim Canova ran against now-deposed DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz for her congressional seat representing Florida's 23rd district, the Florida Democratic Party initially told his campaign that it could not use the party's voter data through the DNC's official NGP VAN hub, according to Richard Bell, a brand strategy consultant and former chief of staff for Mr. Canova.
"When we first asked the Florida Democratic Party for access to VAN their first response was, 'Um, no, sorry, that's only for incumbents,'" Mr. Bell said, using the abbreviation for the NGP VAN's Voter Activation Network, where Democratic campaigns access voter files.
He said his response to the party was, "Wait a second, I don't understand, why would it be only for incumbents? We're Democrats."
The DNC has a blanket contract with NGP VAN that gives Democratic candidates the ability to go through their state parties to access the company's software. There is no official written policy at the national level precluding incumbent challengers from accessing the platform. But a small number of state parties do have policies, some of which also appear to be unwritten, that have prevented incumbent challengers from accessing party data through VAN.
NGP VAN CEO Stu Trevelyan referred inquiries to the DNC, which did not respond to questions about the race in Florida. The Florida Democratic Party also did not respond to a request to comment.
The Canova camp eventually worked out a way to access the data through a separate NGP VAN product called SmartVAN, which employs voter data from data provider TargetSmart and is intended for use by left-leaning clients other than Democratic candidates.
Ms. Wasserman Shultz ultimately won the August primary.
Challengers that do use NGP VAN might also worry that the party would inappropriately share their data with the incumbents, Mr. Bell suggested.
"There's no doubt that there was well-founded fear that we shouldn't work with an organization that could grant access [to our data] to our competitor," Mr. Bell said. "The DNC essentially was the competitor in our case."
That's music to the ears of Mr. Phillips, the Aristotle CEO. For years his firm and other nonpartisan political data platform companies have said that working with the DNC's chosen data tech firm ultimately feeds into the party's mission to be the sole Democratic data overlord.
That felt very real for Missouri State Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal while running against incumbent U.S. Representative Lacy Clay for his long-held seat representing the state's first district in this year's primary. She and other Democratic incumbent challengers in Missouri -- Bruce Franks, who won his primary race for state representative in a special election, and U.S. Senate hopeful Cori Bush, who lost her primary -- told local media in February that the state party would not allow them to access VAN.
"This is a widely shared practice around the country, based on the recognition that the voter file is strengthened through additional data and that if Democratic officials fear that their data will be made available to opponents or potential opponents, they will be less likely to add data that strengthens the file for use by statewide Democratic candidates."
Ms. Chappelle-Nadal argued that the party should have a written rule regarding VAN and data access when it comes to incumbent challengers. It is unclear if the party has an official rule. The Missouri State party did not respond to requests to comment for this story, and the DNC did not respond to requests for coment on the situation in Missouri.
Ultimately granted access for a fee, Ms. Chappelle-Nadal said she decided against working with the party's platform after all. That was despite the fact that she'd worked with NGP VAN before, is comfortable with the system and likes it. Not only was the $2,500 she would be charged by the state party too expensive for her bootstrapped campaign, she was concerned that the requirement to feed her campaign data back into VAN could put her at a disadvantage in a race in which the party supported her rival. Instead she used NationBuilder to manage her campaign data.
Though her opponent would not have been allowed to access her campaign data during the primary had she used VAN, she expressed concern about the prospect. "You're going to take my good data and information and then use it?" she said. "I don't want to go through all this hard work where you're hurting my chances."
Here we have both incumbent challengers and the incumbents themselves worrying about the same thing -- their competition using the same system.
Ms. Chappelle-Nadal, a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson, said the party's initial data restrictions were frustrating. "When you create that type of frustration within your base it creates a lot of hostility," she said. "At the end of the day we're all Democrats."
Her mission to unseat Mr. Clay, whose father was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, was a longshot. She lost the primary.
Alex Law, who unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Rep. David Norcross in New Jersey, also complained publicly about not being able to access VAN through the state party.
Their stories may be anomalies; only a handful of Democratic incumbent challengers have publicized problems accessing VAN.
Hacking the data story
Nonpartisan data companies including Aristotle, L2 and NationBuilder have also taken advantage of data security scandals to pounce on NGP VAN.
Nonpartisan competitors turned up the volume on their security pitch following an NGP VAN system breach in December 2015 that briefly let the Bernie Sanders campaign access Hillary Clinton's data. A hacker's claim in June of this year that he broke into DNC systems through NGP VAN only encouraged its its competitors, even though the DNC said that the claim was false.
"The Democratic National Committee networks were not hacked through NGP VAN," DNC Communications Director Adam Hodge told Ad Age.
Aristotle has nonetheless seized on the incidents to urge Democrats to consider looking beyond the party-christened data platform.
An Aristotle video ad titled "Rigged System" that started running Friday references the DNC server hack in the hopes of dredging up data security concerns among the campaign staffers making technology decisions. In the ad, the avatars of Russian and Chinese government security officials flash on a computer monitor, the lone sounds emanating from the tap-tapping of a coder at the keyboard. The fictional security technologists send messages back and forth, finishing one another's sentences.
"You read the DNC dossier on Donald?" inquires the Russian. "Before you did. Their software is so primitive my 10 year old could hack it," replies his counterpart in China. They go on, "The DNC copied our old software designs to eavesdrop on their own people," "steal personal details of their voters and donors," "control the data and the message," "and crush challengers like Bernie," "good for party bosses like us," "but very bad for Democrats."
It's an almost laughable scenario. Of course the DNC's server software and NGP VAN's technology are not copied from Russia's "old software designs." But the ad does highlight the concern that some campaigns have when it comes to feeding data into a unified system that potential contenders could also use in the future.
Another new Aristotle ad, part of a 10-episode serial campaign, that will be disseminated beyond the November election, features two fictional campaign staffers texting one another at the end of a long work day. "More problems with NGP VAN," one writes. Her colleague, traveling on the DC Metro responds, "Pretty sure Ashley Madison has tighter security," alluding to the affair hookup site for married people, which had a data breach in 2015.
Mr. Phillips declined to explain how Aristotle's system security is more robust than NGP VAN's, as its ads suggest. "Our systems are constantly evolving," he said. "We don't talk about security measures we utilize."
Indeed, claims of security fortitude are difficult to prove partly because most companies don't want to reveal details of their security measures for fear of helping hackers. After the Sanders campaign got access to the Clinton campaigns data last year, Mr. Trevelyan, the NGP VAN CEO, declined to discuss any details around its security procedures or upgrades following the breach.
Challenger brand seeks challenger clients
The Canova camp was in a unique position, battling the chairman of the DNC in a contentious primary. "In the very beginning we felt like we were screwed," said Mr. Bell of the early problems obtaining VAN access. The campaign evaluated other data platforms including NationBuilder, but not Aristotle.
"Aristotle never came up interestingly enough," he said. "I would have been happy to have looked into them."
"Aristotle is certainly the challenger brand," said Mr. Phillips. The firm, which has been around since 1983, hopes to garner interest from campaign staffers -- many younger operatives who may have only been trained to use NGP VAN's tools in recent years and may not have heard of Aristotle.
The plan is to target ads to campaign managers, finance staff, committee treasurers, Democratic convention delegates and lobbyists in the hopes of coaxing them to consider Aristotle when making technology vendor decisions looking ahead to the 2018 midterms.
The DNC in August 2014 announced its partnership with NGP VAN, making VAN its official developers' portal. By then it had become the de facto platform for voter file data accessed by Democratic campaigns across the country to manage door-to-door contact lists for canvassing and ingest new data gathered by volunteers as they meet with voters. Ready for Hillary, the group then building a large supporter database to assist the future Clinton 2016 campaign, was among thousands of Democratic clients using the platform.
The alignment solidified the DNC's efforts to create a standard technology platform for data collection and use by Democratic campaigns from presidentials all the way down the ballot. Today the system is integrated with hundreds of other software tools used for ad targeting, email and other campaign purposes. The idea is to streamline and standardize technology across the party.
Aristotle and NGP VAN have been butting heads for years. A false advertising-related lawsuit between the two firms was dismissed in 2011. However, even five years later, the anti-NGP VAN ads from Aristotle indicate that no love is lost between the two companies.
Despite concerns about working with NGP VAN because of its strong DNC connections, the Canova campaign decided to work with the company during the primary after all.
"They [NGP VAN] really went out of their way with SmartVAN to make sure that we could use it and that the DNC or Florida Democratic Party would never see our data," said Mr. Bell. In August, before the primary vote, the Canova campaign filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission alleging that the DNC "used its resources to track Tim Canova, interfere with Tim Canova events and to assist the Wasserman Schultz campaign in communications strategy." The complaint is pending, according to Mr. Bell.
"Wasserman Shultz can't be trusted with that sort of information," he said. "She used the DNC resources against Bernie and she also used it against us."
He was referring to DNC emails exposed by the hack earlier this year that revealed internal bias against Sanders' campaign. The revelation of those emails right before the Democratic National Convention led to Ms. Wasserman Shultz's resignation as DNC chairman.
"There's no doubt in our mind that she would have gotten access to our data," Mr. Bell said. "At this point we feel confident that she didn't."
Mr. Bell added that now that the former chairman has been replaced by veteran Democratic campaign operative Donna Brazile as interim DNC chairman, "I think everybody's going to feel more comfortable .... I think there will be a new level of transparency."