By Christopher Maier
On a sunny Thursday morning in early July, the main entrance to the Republican National Committee headquarters, less than two blocks from the U.S. Capitol, is bustling with reporters and security agents. They’re waiting for a cadre of Republican congresspeople — including House Speaker Paul Ryan — to kick off a press conference denouncing the FBI’s decision not to file charges against Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server.
For the media, this is a big deal. But for RNC employees like Bradley Walp ’01, it just means coming and going through the south entrance for a few hours.
Sitting in a small meeting room not far from the press conference, Walp, a soft-spoken 37-year-old with thinning hair and a full beard, doesn’t seem too interested. “It happens so frequently,” he shrugs.
This is fitting. Walp, the RNC’s director of geographic information systems (GIS), is a behind-the-scenes guy who spends his days largely removed from the media hubbub. Instead, he’s wrestling with the data that many party leaders (and their staffs) use to define strategies and shape tactics.
At its core, Walp says, GIS is all about “making data make sense” by layering sets of information over maps to see what insights emerge. This involves collecting, comparing, customizing, visualizing and analyzing all sorts of geography-based data, from historical voter trends to demographic shifts, consumer purchasing preferences to a seemingly endless slate of other categories.
The insights that result inform everything from redistricting to deciding which doors to knock on during election season.
GIS found its footing in the 20th century as a robust extension of cartography. Since then, it’s been used in everything from engineering to Google Maps — and politics. Walp points to the 2004 George W. Bush campaign (which used consumer data to better connect with geographic subsets of voters) and the 2008 Barack Obama campaign (which layered voter and demographic data to determine optimal locations for campaign activities) as watershed progressions.
But how exactly the RNC uses GIS data varies by candidate, campaign and the political landscape at the time.
You can see that in this year’s presidential election. Compared to the more information-hungry campaign of Mitt Romney in 2012, Walp says the Donald Trump campaign is “a little more low-key on the data side.” But as election day nears, he expects the campaign to ramp up its requests.
And Walp has every reason to know what to expect. This year marks his fourth presidential election.
He first arrived in D.C. in summer 2001, fresh out of Bucknell, where he double majored in sociology and political science. He studied with several political science professors who shared stories about their real-world experiences working in D.C. — and he was hooked. “I knew that I wanted to do something with politics,” he says, “so this seemed like the right place to come.”
He spent that first summer as an intern for Rep. Jim Greenwood (R-Pa.), before taking a temp job at the RNC. Then came a brief stint with a pharmaceutical-industry lobbying firm, followed by his return to the RNC as a full-time member of the data team in 2004.
These days, Walp is settled in D.C. with his wife and young daughter. And he’s eager to see how GIS and politics continue to merge in the years ahead. “We’re always looking for better ways for people to look at the data,” he says.
Christopher Maier is a writer, founder of the creative agency Made By Little and producer of Little Salon, a D.C.-based arts and culture experience.
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