Data driven: Brecht Heuchan makes data-crunching software for lobbyists
As a fundraiser for Republican House candidates in the mid-1990s, Brecht Heuchan spent many hours combing through a book of lobbyists, dialing numbers and dealing with rejection. Many never answered the phone. Some of those who did told him they didn’t give to Republicans and not to call again.
The donor prospecting process, Heuchan says, was akin to flying blind. “We tracked our fundraising on rudimentary spreadsheets and made call lists with little to no historical information on the donor or their giving behavior because it took too long to find.”
He remembers thinking, “There has to be a better way.”
Some two decades later, Heuchan, now a lobbyist and political consultant, has developed a data-mining tool that takes much of the guesswork out of the political money chase. Heuchan’s web-based software system, Contribution Link, combines 400,000 publicly available state-level donor records with layers of other demographic, geographic and marketing data to help candidates and their fundraising professionals create strategically targeted fundraising lists.
Heuchan’s search engine can identify how many Realtors within a specified five-mile radius in Clearwater have a history of giving to Republicans, for example. From that list, the software allows users to drill down for more details — from the donors’ level of education, household income and voting history to their credit scores, home phone numbers and birth dates. “We can really start to develop assumptions about this person and about what kind of giving behavior you could expect of him,” Heuchan says.
In addition to microtargeting donors, Contribution Link makes it easier for lobbyists, corporations and political organizations to track the spending of their competitors.
Bryan Anderson, vice president of government relations for HCA’s national group, says the service is great for finding “connections” between various donors that might not be obvious through a cursory search of the state’s campaign finance database. For instance, while HCA does all its campaign spending in Florida through three political action committees, there are some competitor hospitals that don’t have PACs. Contribution Link, however, captures giving from every angle, including board members who wrote checks to lawmakers.
Having that sort of information can provide a competitive edge when going into a legislative fight, Anderson says. “It’s nice to be able to look up and go, ‘OK, we know everybody on the committee and who in the health care industry has given to them and who maybe on the other side, in the managed care industry.’ That’s very helpful for us in assessing who we need to spend time lobbying and whom we need to ignore.”
HCA and other companies can also get a 30,000-foot view of their own spending data. Contribution Link can generate a summary of how much the corporation gave to Democrats and Republicans and exactly what percentage of those candidates won. Heuchan and his staff can also produce reports showing how much money a company has donated to members of various committees and how they stack up against their competitors.
The company recently launched a service called Decision Link, which uses historical political information, advanced modeling techniques and data science to calculate the likelihood of potential outcomes of legislative races. In creating the election outcome-forecasting tool, Heuchan says he and his team analyzed the characteristics of more than 1,000 candidates from the last three election cycles in Florida and overlaid them with hundreds of district demographic and political performance data points. In doing so, he says, they were able to pinpoint five critical characteristics that were key in forecasting election results.
Heuchan says the model, which is 94% accurate, can help determine how much money a candidate needs to win as well as pinpoint what he calls the “candidate contribution saturation level” — a fundraising point at which more money won’t increase the candidate’s probability of winning. The model also can separate “swing” districts, which can go either way, from the “lean” districts, which lean more toward one candidate, helping donors prioritize their political spending.
Heuchan says the 3-year-old company has about 50 clients. While the service was originally launched as a subscription-based business model, with clients performing their own searches and research, Heuchan discovered that many weren’t utilizing the analytics to their full potential. “We turned the company in a 180-degree direction and now fully operate the system for our clients, building customized solutions for each client’s unique need.” Prices can vary from several hundred dollars a month to several thousand a month, depending on the level of service the client requires.
As Heuchan, 43, continues to build his client roster in Florida, he’s also expanding into other states. He says an Ohio version of Contribution Link is nearly finished, and he aims to expand into New York and Georgia in the near future. “I have a lot of ambitious goals. I like what we’re doing. I wake up every single day with new ideas.”