The political tidal wave is about to come crashing down on the Midlands in the form of the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses.
Iowans are preparing to gather Tuesday at schools, churches and libraries to kick off the presidential primary season by throwing their weight behind their candidate of choice.
Meanwhile, in Nebraska, there's VoterTide, an Omaha technology startup holding its finger to the digital pulse of all things politics. The political data analysis platform was developed by Omaha entrepreneur Jimmy Winter and the team that launched Rockdex, which analyzes the popularity of musicians and record labels.
This time, VoterTide, which is built on the same data collection engine, spits out real-time scores for political candidates based on what's buzzing online. The data collection engine processes about 70,000 pieces of data — news articles, Facebook fans and updates, Twitter posts from influential users, YouTube views, and even rumors circulating online — that could end up making or breaking a candidate's run for office.
For casual political observers, VoterTide is used to simply rank which candidates are the talk of the Internet, Winter said.
But the business wants to make the paid version of the product an indispensable tool for political candidates, campaign managers and leading party officials.
"We want a screen hanging in their office with the VoterTide data on it just streaming across constantly," Winter said. "We want it to be the first thing they check in the morning, the last thing at night."
Winter and the chairman of VoterTide's board of directors, Gordon Whitten, a Hastings, Neb., native who also founded Omaha-based Sojern, are making a major push to get the professional version of VoterTide in the hands of politicians in Washington, D.C., and in statehouses across the country.
Rockdex possesses many of the same features as VoterTide and helps artists, record labels, managers and publicists track what kind of buzz a musician or band is gaining online. The idea for the company was planted in 2006 and, in 2009, the first fine-tuned product was released.
The platform has even expanded outside music. The National Football League's Kansas City Chiefs also use the program to track what is being said about the organization.
Before that, in 1999 as a high school senior in Gretna, Winter started as a computer programmer for a record label in New York City that has since folded. Afterward, he focused on building music industry-focused business management software and launched Music Arsenal in 2003.
Now, Winter, 29, is taking his first foray into the political realm after conversations he had with his dad, a casual follower of politics.
"We'd be talking about the music side of things, then some congressman would do something dumb or slip of a tongue and he'd say, 'I wonder what's being said online about that congressman,'" said Winter. "We talked about it, he kept saying it, then the more we thought about it, it just made sense to move into that area."
So Winter took the data processing platform he already had in Rockdex and started building a new interface for VoterTide in February 2011.
The company's seven-employee team, which includes co-founder Shannon Schlappi, who works out of Kansas City, launched the site in November. Since then, Winter and Whitten have made multiple trips to the nation's capital to pitch the platform to potential users and technology providers.
Currently, a Nebraska congressman is among a handful in Congress who use the product, Winter and Whitten said. They declined to name any.
One of VoterTide's early adopters was Patrick Gerhardt, a political consultant for Blue Point LLC, a political consulting firm based in Scottsdale, Ariz. Gerhardt, who grew up in Newman Grove, Neb., and lives in Lincoln, started using the product late last spring, before its public debut.
Gerhardt uses VoterTide to track the impact of Blue Point's social media efforts, as well as the trickle-down effect of other events, like when a campaign issues a press release, participates in a town hall event or launches a robocalling campaign.
In short: VoterTide takes the guesswork out of what kind of results and impressions social media efforts are getting for Blue Point's clients. It assigns a value to something that previously was hard to measure, he said.
"I think it gives us a pretty good advantage," Gerhardt said. "I would not be surprised if more companies like this start popping up during the 2014 election cycle.
"This is the start of something bigger."
Soon, VoterTide will launch a mobile alerts system that will send online trend notifications straight to the customer's smartphone anytime there's a major social media development or an unusually high volume of traffic relating to the politician, their competition and other events affecting the race.
Winter said the new feature will help politicians "get in front" of messages and do damage control before major stories break, Winter said.
In late December, Gerhardt said he had used VoterTide to monitor "badmouthing" of his candidates on Twitter and quelled the situation before major media outlets caught on.
"There's a lot of false stuff that gets thrown out there and runs like wildfire," Gerhardt said. "And it's only going to grow. This is a way to follow that in a way that you never used to be able to."
Whitten is a serial entrepreneur who has become widely known for starting successful companies. Before the 2007 launch of Sojern, which provides destination-specific advertising on airline boarding passes, he built Income Dynamics Inc, a company that sold income-tax deduction software and was purchased by Intuit in 2004.
He said VoterTide earned a $50,000 grant from the Nebraska Department of Economic Development and is looking to raise up to $1 million this year.
"We're going to make a splash, that I know for sure," Whitten, 40, said.
Over the long run, the goal is for the VoterTide website to generate millions of page views and for the paid application and mobile alerts to be used by thousands of customers.
Whitten said the platform also promises to help level the playing field between those political campaigns able to raise millions of dollars and grass-roots political efforts that have rabid, passionate followings that might not have the same kind of capital backing.
"In the political universe, people say that whoever raises the most money and can buy the most ads usually wins," Whitten said. "Well, that world is changing. And as social media becomes more prevalent and the generation that have grown up on it is getting older, it's becoming a dramatically more important mechanism to gain information and understanding.
"It's a revolution ... of the way elections and politics have been done in this world."
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