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How a Political Tech Company Continues to Innovate for Democrats

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Since the 2008 presidential election, NGP VAN has worked on almost every major Democratic candidate’s campaign for president.

The story of NGP VAN begins in the attic of founder Nathaniel Pearlman’s home in 1997. In founding the company, Pearlman was realizing an opportunity presented to him many years earlier. As an employee at another firm in the early days of the political software industry, his company managed lists of contacts organized across many different platforms such as Microsoft Word, Excel and WordPerfect. He noticed the lack of connection between these many platforms and saw an opportunity to provide this service in a more partisan manner—in his case for the Democratic Party.

Then known as NGP Software, before merging with the Voter Activation Network (VAN) in 2011, Pearlman ran the company as a one-man show, doing all the marketing, tech support and programming for the first two and a half years of its existence, and in the process, built an impressive client base in the Democratic Party.

In those early days, Pearlman had built himself a respectable political software company on the cutting edge of campaigning. But even he couldn’t have foreseen the giant NGP VAN is today, or the revolutionary effect it has had on the entire election process.

The company’s big break came in 2008, during that year’s presidential election. At the time, NGP Software and VAN were separate companies, but both played major roles in establishing then-Illinois senator Barack Obama’s online presidential campaign—one that has gone down in history as the most technologically advanced ever. It encouraged subscription to an email newsletter and created various social media accounts as a way to connect and update supporters of the campaign.

Barack Obama won that 2008 election. A chief reason often cited for his success was his campaign’s creative use of the Internet and its many platforms to connect with voters—an approach first conceptualized and implemented by NGP VAN. From that day forward, the political campaign process was forever changed.

The company now represents a political software platform that offers a multitude of different online and database services to the fledgling progressive candidate or movement, including the development of targeted e-mail or social media posts, intelligent surveillance of potential donors and supporters, and a simplified compliance reporting system.

According to Statista, there are approximately 248 million e-mail users in the U.S. as of 2018, and 211 million on social media. This is much more than the projected 92 million cable TV subscribers for 2018, but the massive numbers leave many new campaigns overwhelmed on how or where to start marketing. NGP VAN helps campaigns to reach these vast audiences, yet offers more tools on its platform to analyze behavior and target parts of these audiences. For example, its VoteBuilder software, developed alongside the Democratic National Committee, creates a database of every voter, volunteer, and donor to any Democratic campaign that future candidates can use when carrying out their own.

This targeting requires intelligent surveillance, and in no area is it more utilized than in fundraising. According to its website, NGP VAN offers a 360-degree view of a campaign’s donors. It knows what they do, what they see and most importantly, their prior interactions with the campaign, whether that be a donation or a follow on social media. The company’s segmentation tool groups these active donors as those most likely to spend on a certain issue, allowing for more refined pitches to the correct donors.

Complicated? Yes. But the software is also purposely simple where it needs to be. For example, it also offers what it calls a “painless reporting” platform when filing compliance for federal, state, and even some local governments.

Since the 2008 presidential election, NGP VAN has worked on almost every major Democratic candidate’s campaign for president. Perhapst the most notable being the 2016 presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders, which refused donations from super PACs and only accepted them from direct individual donors. His campaign raised more than $180 million in this manner, pushing the current technology of NGP VAN to its limit of fundraising outreach and capability.

If the success of Bernie Sanders’ campaign to challenge Hillary Clinton is an indication of anything, it’s the trend, especially from younger voters, to support candidates from grassroots campaigns rather than those backed by corporate super PACs. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the coming mid-term and presidential elections, but one thing remains clear: NGP VAN and political tech companies like it are the key to their success and will only grow in importance going forward.

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