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GOP's NationBuilder and Dem's VAN in a Political Data Duel

by Chad Peace, published

Democratic campaign managers are all familiar with the NGP Voter Activation Network (VAN), which is a digital database of voter information to keep campaigns organized and to provide them with a massive database of contacts and voter information.  The VAN doesn't deal with non-Democrats seeking political data.  They are a partisan organization and don't try to hide it.  In fact, I tried this primary season to tap into the VAN on behalf a non-partisan candidate and they told me to pound sand.  Granted, they told me that very nicely and one of their reps actually told me to check out Nation Builder, because they were a non-partisan company who offered cheap political data (hope I don't get someone in trouble).

Nation Builder is a website and data management platform that is supposed to give candidates an all-in-one solution to their online and data campaign needs. I did check out Nation Builder in February, and aside from the fact that it was difficult to use and confusing in its current state, it seemed like they had a product that was on its way to being very powerful.  Most importantly, they provide what has traditionally been expensive data for extremely cheap; in a database that is directly accessible by campaigns.

In March, Nation Builder announced that they had received over $6.25 million from investors including Sean Parker and Neal Mehta.  Presumably, this will give them the capital to make Nation Builder a more user and campaign-friendly experience.

Now, Nation Builder prides itself on being non-partisan.  This is important because Democrats, who traditionally have relied on the more expensive VAN, can get their political data extremely cheap from Nation Builder.  This is not welcome news for the Democrat-only NGP-VAN.

But this month, NationBuilder signed a deal with the GOP to be the exclusive campaign technology of the Republican State Leadership Committee, whose mission is to elect Republican candidates running for office at the state level across the U.S.  And NationBuilder is surprised that NGP-VAN is instilling some anxiety into NationBuilder's Democratic customers?  The e-mail I received today from Nation Builder says it all:

I hate having to send this email, but we are getting numerous reports that NGP VAN is both lying to and bullying some of the Democratic candidates using Nation Builder. This is appalling, and we want to make sure our customers know the truth. They are saying that your data is not secure and more specifically, that we give it to your opponents. This is utterly ridiculous. You own your data. You can export it, import it, and share it with whoever you want, but we will never give it to someone else. Ever. Our entire company and infrastructure is set up to preserve your data's integrity. Some of you are also receiving threats from NGP VAN and being prohibited from importing your data into Nation Builder.  I'm so sorry you are being treated like this. I started Nation Builder to make the tools of organizing accessible and affordable to everyone. There are two things you can count on from me and the Nation Builder team: we will not rest until we have fulfilled our mission, and we will always be honest and forthright with you. If you are being bullied, please know that this pressure is not coming from the Democratic Party. It is coming from NGP VAN, a corporation trying to preserve their monopoly on a market with anti-competitive and unethical behavior. We encourage you to contact your state party, and if that gets you nowhere, call us.  We can give you access to voter data for free, and you can use all the money you'll save to rent vans and get your voters to the polls. Jim Gilliam Founder/CEO

My two cents on the issue: Jim Gilliam is probably 100% genuine. He wants to provide a platform that is truly non-partisan and secure.  But, he made a deal with the proverbial partisan devil ... the GOP.  And if you think that Democratic clients should not be worried that the GOP has made Nation Builder its exclusive provider, you haven't been in politics very long.  Fact is, Nation Builder took a side.  And if controlling ownership ever shifts out of an altruist like Jim Gilliam's hands, I don't think any Democrat would want all their political data stored in their system.

UPDATED: Shortly after posting this article, I was forwarded the response from NGP-VAN's Stu Trevelyan:

It appears NationBuilder wants to manufacture a fight with NGP VAN, possibly as a means of marketing NationBuilder. NGP VAN is in good company in being attacked by NationBuilder’s CEO, Jim Gilliam. Recently, when the Netroots Nation ED called for a Democratic boycott of NationBuilder because of NationBuilder’s new contract with the Republican State Leadership Committee, Gilliam told him to “stop lying about us”. When a Democratic NationBuilder consultant blogged that they could no longer use NationBuilder because of the Republican contract, Gilliam wrote, “Shame on you.” To a person who asked if Gilliam would feel guilty if Republicans won as a result of NationBuilder help, he wrote, “You’re insane.” When TechPresident covered the Democratic boycott, and Jim didn’t like the coverage, he attacked the reporter as “exactly what is wrong with political reporting.” And he’s attacked partisan firms Salsa Labs and Blue State Digital also. My mother taught us to deal with these sorts of situations by contacting the other person directly; Jim did not attempt any contact with NGP VAN. Had Jim done so, we would have explained to him that NGP VAN is not in a position to threaten or prohibit anyone from taking data from VoteBuilder and importing it into NationBuilder. The state Democratic parties own the voter files and distribute VoteBuilder access. It is true that the state Democratic parties and all the Democratic candidates in their states benefit from the collaborative data structure of VoteBuilder, and therefore there is a rationale for all the Democratic candidates using it. It is also true that since NationBuilder has a contract to provide thousands of anti-gay, anti-union, anti-women, anti-immigrant Republicans with their software, any dollar, idea or feedback provided by a Democratic or progressive client to NationBuilder does in fact go towards improving a tool that is being used to defeat Democrats. Is it coincidental that Jim is creating this dustup during the same week that TechCrunch, Mashable, ClickZ, and others covered the launch of our Social Organizing tool? For which NationBuilder lacks equivalent functionality? Perhaps. It’s 100 days until Election Day. Every minute NGP VAN spends addressing NationBuilder’s baseless accusations is a minute we’re unable to dedicate to President Obama’s re-election and Democrats running for office everywhere. We’re going back to work to elect Democrats.  

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