Is This Powerlifting Strategist Monopolizing Democrats’ Data?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because nearly every Democratic campaign relies on her technology, even as critics worry it’s stifling progress.
A couple of years ago, Amanda Coulombe got into powerlifting. “I just got to the point where I was sick of being scared of that side of the gym,” says the Spin class regular, who this summer lifted 305 pounds to finish second in a dead lift competition at her Boston gym. “I feel it’s one of the only sports, especially for women, that’s about taking up space and getting stronger,” Coulombe says.
It’s a fitting pastime for the 36-year-old who these days is carrying the weight of the world, or at least that of the Democratic universe. As general manager of organizing at web hosting service provider and voter database NGP VAN, Coulombe is charged with managing the technology powering nearly all Democrats, from local races to the 15 would-be presidents still vying for the party nomination. And amid criticism of the tech company’s efforts, she’s trying to prove it’s a Democratic strength for 2020.
Hers is the database software that almost every single campaign on the left uses to log voter contacts, knock on doors, phone bank and perform countless other organizing activities. “It’s just a best-in-class application for canvassing,” says Jessica Post, president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, adding that Coulombe has “always been willing to understand the feedback from field organizers to improve their product.” Hers is a pivotal, stabilizing role — particularly as the company faces accusations of favoring incumbents and monopolizing Democratic data.
NGP VAN sits squarely in the larger intraparty battle between the so-called elites and the grassroots.
Some of that critique seems to be on Coulombe’s mind as she sits down at the Sofitel hotel bar near NGP VAN’s office in downtown Washington. Politics is the opposite of the tech world where many of the company’s critics come from, she says. That world is “really cyclical, the money is really tight and expectations are high and on a timeline,” she says.
“It’s not meant to be a dig at all,” Coulombe continues, waving off the suggestion that NGP VAN may be a little defensive. “This is just an area of explosion we saw after 2016: of people in the tech world coming in and … I do think there is a learning curve.”
It is true that both NGP VAN and Coulombe are now the campaign veterans. The company was founded in 1997, while Coulombe was growing up in small-town Ware, Massachusetts, the daughter of a firefighter and a nurse. She attended Mount Holyoke College, which she chose because it gave her the biggest financial aid package. But while she expected to study health care, she instead caught the politics bug.
She interned for Sen. John Kerry and graduated early to commit full time to his 2004 presidential campaign. That’s where she met her longtime partner, Roger Lau, who is now Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign manager (while the couple still watch HBO’s Succession together, they’ve created a “church-and-state” relationship around work, since Coulombe’s job has her working with all the candidates).
When Howard Dean became chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 2005, he selected NGP VAN to provide the tools powering the national voter file built by the DNC — hoping to streamline Democratic campaigns as part of his famous “50-state strategy.” Coulombe joined the company after working for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign.
NGP VAN blossomed with sole control of a booming Democratic database, which, due to its DNC contract, forced nearly every left-leaning campaign in America to use it. The company brings in an estimated $50 million per year. Three times, Coulombe took leave to work on Senate campaigns in Massachusetts (including the 2012 Warren campaign) to see whether the company’s products were working in real time and bring back tweaks, such as making canvasser lists PDFs rather than requiring volunteers to view them in a browser.
Now Coulombe is focused on improvements to add more organic, distributed canvassing that matches volunteers to doors near them, plus real-time updates. “You don’t need as much staff on the ground focused on just serving that particular area. You can create those bigger universes,” she says.
If the innovations sound modest, that’s partly by design. While open to new ideas, Coulombe says the company has “an attitude of first do no harm.… I’m not going to roll something out that’s a major fundamental change to the way people have been doing things.”
Which strikes to the heart of criticism facing NGP VAN. After Sen. Bernie Sanders’ staffers were temporarily able to see Clinton campaign data due to a VoteBuilder app bug in the 2016 election, some progressive tech experts criticized the company for being outdated and unresponsive to new ideas. That critique intensified after President Donald Trump’s victory, due in part to disappointing voter turnout from the party base. And insurgent Democratic candidates, such as Illinois’ Rachel Ventura and Texas’ Joseph Kopser, have accused state parties of withholding the platform’s data to protect incumbents.
When asked about the monopoly accusation, DNC Chair Tom Perez says state parties have “considerable autonomy” so that the national party “isn’t dictating a one-size-fits-all approach,” adding that “we’ll continue to work with NGP VAN, but we’re also working with others.”
But because most campaign compliance firms are only trained in NGP VAN technology, “there is this one system that everyone is forced to use,” says Kopser, who launched an organization to back centrist candidates after losing a House race last year. Candidates are fighting not just an uphill battle against the establishment politicians; they’re fighting against “proprietary systems of the monopolies and incumbents,” he says.
Which places NGP VAN squarely in the larger intraparty battle between the so-called elites and the grassroots. Still, Coulombe argues that NGP VAN has made its developer portal more open to integration with outside products by launching its Innovation Platform, in 2014. It had a slow start, but several thousand application programming interface keys have been requested and approved since Trump’s win (of course, that model still ensures others have to work with NGP VAN).
“We have been open, and we are continuing to invest on our side,” Coulombe says, criticizing a “field of dreams” mentality that if you just build a new app, voters will come out of the woodwork. “The tool does not equal success. The program equals success.”
Back at home, Coulombe is a master of her program. When she’s not working, or working out, she is completing jigsaw puzzles — the “So. Fucking. Hard,” ones, she says, showing a photo of a recent Frank Lloyd Wright–inspired endeavor. “I can’t go halfway on anything,” she admits, a trait that Democrats will be counting on as 2020 approaches.