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NationBuilder partner Lance Dutson upholds the power of owning your own data in U.S. politics

Lance Dutson started using NationBuilder as a political consultant eight years ago––and he hasn’t looked back since.

By Nelli Veletyan

metrics

  • 8
  • years as a partner
  • 7
  • campaigns run on NationBuilder
  • 1MM+
  • votes across all campaigns

What follows is an interview with Lance Dutson, Principal at Red Hill Strategies, on his experience working as a political consultant using NationBuilder, edited for length and clarity.

Q: How did you come to start using NationBuilder in your campaign work and how did it change things for you? How has it helped over the course of multiple campaigns?

Lance Dutson:
The first big campaign that I used NationBuilder for was Senator Collins’ 2014 campaign. Before then, when I ran the senator's digital campaign in 2008, everything was patched together. We had an email system that was one of the traditional vendors. We had a website that was built on Drupal. We had a donation module that was with another vendor. And I think we were using Zoho's free database to build a contact management system. So everything was all mixed up and there was a lot of importing and exporting and things like that. It just wasn't a very fluid system. So when the 2014 campaign came along, I was looking for something that would integrate everything. And I had read about NationBuilder and we decided to give it a try and it was really helpful. It immediately eliminated the multiple vendor and import export issues.

My background is as a web developer. I came into politics semi-accidentally and have worked in the digital communications realm and done quite a bit of campaign management as well. But my background is not in the field management aspect of politics, although I'm fascinated by it. And the opportunity to blend the field disciplines into something that can leverage data as much as possible is something that's really interesting to me.

In the early days of using NationBuilder, we started out simple. But for us, it was a big deal because it was so fluid. When we were doing small dollar fundraising events that were political field events, being able to draw a line around a particular area within 20 miles and send email invites out based on that simple targeting…it doesn't seem like anything now, but it was a big deal then and really helped create routines for us to reuse this valuable data that we'd acquired either through online donations, through mail prospecting, or through regular political lists. 

So somewhere in that realm, I dug in and started learning how to use the templating system in NationBuilder and how to do custom development, mostly out of utility on the fly. But I also really came to enjoy the development platform and the simplicity of putting together custom sites with the NationBuilder modules. I've done a lot of web development through WordPress and Drupal and other platforms for private businesses and things like that. When you're out in the regular world, there's a million different variables. In the political world, we all use the same four or five basic components. There's almost no other platform [like NationBuilder] out there that is built specifically for the same rote tasks that political campaigns have to deal with––so it has been something that I've urged clients to use as a base platform ever since. There's also a mindset that occurs when you take an organization and put them into the NationBuilder structure, and that's the reusability of data and how important it is.

To be able to quantify and categorize contacts with potential voters and have metrics that the campaign is working against both through communications and field work, to know that people in particular areas have been touched, how many times and what kind of contact was made. . . it seems very simple, but the way campaigns tend to work is that there's a lot more work to be done than people power to do it, so things tend to be very rushed and it's very easy to lose track of those metrics that hold you accountable to making forward progress. I really enjoy setting up campaigns and thinking about where we are now, where we’re going, what our goals are and how we can quantify where we are along that path. NationBuilder in a political campaign setting makes that very easy. 

Q: What is the cumulative benefit of working with a particular client over the course of multiple campaigns given that sort of data ownership? And what is it like to communicate the value of that to clients?

Lance Dutson:
I'll talk about it in two different realms. Second, I'll talk about it in the structure that you've just laid out, but I think there's an even more interesting way to look at that. 

Political parties own everything and our binary system makes it so that you’re either on one team or another. The real reason, pragmatically, to belong to a political party is that it comes along with millions and millions of dollars of infrastructure and data. That's a huge advantage. However, in my experience, I think everybody tends to agree that the political parties are really, really antiquated and slow-moving.

Owning your own data and being platform agnostic or at least self-contained is going to continue to become more and more important because one way political organizations keep their people in line is through the utilization of this technology––either giving it or withholding it. And I think there's also something inherently at conflict with the priorities of political parties when it comes to building a product that's better. I think the long-term political model for public officials who intend to be in the political game for a long time is absolutely to own your own data, be able to leverage the party infrastructure where it makes sense, but in general, to contain the material that you have, and to make sure that you can track your interactions with voters in a way that isn't shared with people you don't want it to be shared with, and isn't taken away based on your fondness for a political party. 

In 2018, I ran a congressional campaign for an independent candidate, and that really emphasized to me what you lose out on when you don't have a political party behind you, but NationBuilder worked very, very well for that. Although you don't start with these tools that people that work in party politics tend to take for granted, you can build them. In the state of Maine it costs $1500 to buy the voter file. It's not a tremendous investment. The benefit of building your own platform and putting together, managing and owning your own data is that you tend to respect it a little bit more and understand the investment and time that everybody's making and look for efficiencies and ways to reuse that data whenever you can.

I think everybody's unique, and probably every state says "Our state's very unique because of the way we look at things,” and we tend to say that in Maine quite a bit. We're a very rural state and there's a lot of idiosyncrasies in our politics up here. That’s something that a one-size-fits-all system doesn't necessarily capture and being able to create your own categorization and taxonomy within a system over a number of years, be able to change it, update it, and use it the way that you want to use it and not the way that a thousand other congressional campaigns across the country tend to use it––I think that's very valuable. I've been very happy in both building from the ground up and integrating with party data. NationBuilder works very well for that.

Working with political parties means engaging with centralized tech infrastructures. The value that NationBuilder provides is being able to bridge the tech and ensure that I have ownership of the data my clients need.

Q: What are you most excited for with NationBuilder going forward?

Lance Dutson:
At the end of the day, the mechanics of quantified politicking are very simple. You have voters, you have their political party assignments, and then you have who they vote for or who they’re leaning toward voting for. That process has been the same for a long time. One could do it in a spreadsheet. What I think people are constantly trying to evolve are the ways to find patterns within that data. For example, if there's someone in a particular town who is registered as an Independent, and they live on the east side of town, and you find that people on the east side of town are registered as Independents but they tend to vote Republican––that's a golden nugget of information. I think the polling and micro-targeting industries are constantly trying to find novel ways to look at that same basic information.

In order to come up with those clever ways of looking for patterns or looking for anomalies you have to trust your system for the integrity of it but also the ability to use it. With NationBuilder, there's really no lag in the data mining. For our populations up here compared to other systems with similar data, I'm very confident in the data structure, the underlying mechanics, the simplicity of how it works, and the fact that it's not trying to do something that it can't do.

I look at NationBuilder as two different things: one, it’s a very simple database and CMS, and two: there are the activist tools that are more like web technology on top of it. I've found that NationBuilder’s general understanding of how a campaign works and how that data tends to be used is very helpful. Technology isn't going to evolve beyond the database structure––a simple file structure that contains data and records. That's going to be with us for a long time. The complex, new, and interesting things that'll happen in politics over the next 10 years or so are going to be in what you do with that data. And NationBuilder doesn't come to its own conclusions or try to force its different perspectives on it––it seems like the tools have evolved along with what you would need. For instance, walk lists. Cutting walk lists using a visual tool is something that NationBuilder did before the big political parties could do it. And everybody's catching up with that now. 

But all of that has to be based on a very sound structure on the back end and I think that's what gives me a lot of faith in NationBuilder. I've used it for eight years now which is like an eternity in political technology. That to me is probably the most important piece. 

Q: What would you say to other political consultants looking for campaigning tools?

Lance Dutson:
There is a lot of proprietary territorial perspective in politics and political technology. And it's driven by vendor jockeying, but there was a point in time where I was speaking with people in the DC committees about the platform and getting pushback from non-technical people about it and I finally confronted the people that were pushing against it and said, "Okay. Well, if you don't want to use this platform, then what platform is there?" And there was no solution. In my experience, I have not found another platform that was as comprehensive and as powerful that was specifically tailored for political campaigns. That’s something that seems like a no-brainer. If I were talking to colleagues about it, I think there's a couple of points. 

One, it's not a free service and if you have a larger voter file, it's a fairly substantial investment to set up a proper NationBuilder nation. However, in the grand scheme of things, if you're paying attention to your data and your digital interactions the way you should be, it should be a manageable part of a normal campaign’s operation. 

The alternative, especially with new candidates or a smaller race, is that people have a cousin that makes websites and so-and-so said they can do this and there's the idea that the internet is a free thing and you can patch it all together––I've done it and it's not worth it. As we talked about before, the ability to manage your own data and have the flexibility to be able to get the data when you need it [is important]...there are times when it's 11 o'clock at night and you need to get a bumper sticker order out or something. If you don't have instant access to your own data, then very simple tasks like that become very difficult and you end up relying on other people and phone calls and meetings and emails and things for something that you should be able to just check right off the box. 

Sometimes when you have systems that are in a box the way NationBuilder is there are limitations to it, but I've found that the platform is very flexible and customizable. At the end of the day, if you're thinking in terms of what you can do with data––you can access it in the website templating system through liquid variables rather than hard code.  Plus, the folks at NationBuilder are pretty good about dealing with discussions about customization and things like that. In my pitches and structural setups on campaigns, NationBuilder is cemented into the work. 

 

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