Koch network strikes new deal to share voter data with RNC-aligned firm

By Matea Gold July 29 at 12:20 PM

A data management company financed by a political network backed by Charles and David Koch has struck a new deal to share voter data in the 2016 cycle with a private firm aligned with the Republican National Committee, signaling a tentative truce between the rival data operations.

Data Trust, which has an exclusive list-exchange agreement with the RNC, will swap information again with i360, a company that manages its own database for groups in the Koch network and other political clients, according to four people familiar with the arrangement.

Officials with both companies declined to comment.

The partnership -- similar to one that the two entities had in 2014 -- means that the eventual GOP presidential nominee will have a voter file enriched with data gathered by other Republican contenders, as well as Koch-backed groups such as Americans for Prosperity.

While the RNC provides its voter file directly to GOP presidential candidates and state parties, Data Trust swaps lists with independent groups such as American Crossroads and American Action Network. Through an application interface created by Data Trust, the party and outside groups that are its clients can access and update profiles of individual voters, allowing the RNC to enrich its master voter file.

A parallel effort is run by i360, a private firm financed by Freedom Partners, a nonprofit backed by the Kochs and other wealthy conservatives. The company -- which has its own individual-level database of 250 Americans culled from voter registration files, consumer data and social media profiles -- provides data and technology to groups in the Koch network, as well as GOP campaigns and vendors.

Major party donors such as Paul Singer and Dick Boyce have encouraged the two operations to collaborate, concerned that the separate projects were leading to a duplication of resources and impeding efforts by the GOP to catch up with the left on data analytics.

But in recent months, tensions between the two operations broke out into the open, raising questions about whether another partnership was possible.

Much of the friction has been driven by i360’s success in signing up GOP candidates, who have embraced its easy-to-use interface. RNC officials worried that if campaigns turned to i360 and not the RNC for their base voter file, the party would lose the opportunity to collect voter contact information from the field. Eventually, a private company could have control of the most valuable trove of voter data on the right. The move of a top RNC digital official, Chuck DeFeo, to i360 earlier this year further deteriorated relations.

In June, RNC chief of staff Katie Walsh spoke out publicly, telling Yahoo News that she believed “it’s very dangerous and wrong to allow a group of very strong, well-financed individuals who have no accountability to anyone to have control over who gets access to the data when, why and how.”

Since then, both sides have been talking privately and the rhetoric has ratcheted down.

“I do think there’s a value to making sure we’re all working together to ensure that we’re doing things efficiently and effectively,” Walsh told The Washington Post this week. “We appreciate everything the Kochs are doing and it’s a huge help, but at the end of the day, our focus is making sure that the voter file and the field staff are ready for the nominee to come in.”

RNC officials said they are making constant improvements to their database interface and already have signed list-exchange agreements with 11 presidential candidates.

Still, several top contenders -- including former Florida Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker -- are expected to get their base data from both i360 and the RNC.

The rivalry has papered over a broader problem, in the view of some GOP technologists: that the party is still lagging when it comes to advanced data science, and has yet to achieve a breakthrough like Narwhal, a data platform created by President Obama’s 2012 election team that integrated information about a voter’s social media activity, donations and volunteering in real time.

Officials at i360 and the RNC say they have similar systems in place, but it remains to be seen whether they can match the Obama platform. The RNC system relies on application program interfaces to query and download information, as well as an internal extract, transfer and load process to share data between departments.

“The technology in the Republican Party hasn’t evolved,” said one person familiar with both operations, who declined to be named in order to speak candidly.

Operatives with the Koch-backed network say they have made major advances in their ability to integrate information from the field in real time. And Walsh said that since a RNC post-mortem report in 2014 called for the party to beef up its technology and data investments, “I think we’ve checked most -- if not all -- of those boxes in terms of the capabilities we wanted to have."

“There is much more of a life cycle here at the RNC now that revolves around data,” Walsh added. “Everything we do here comes back to, 'How does that improve the voter file?'”