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 every-
thing 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
Christopher Maier is a writer, founder of the creative agency
Made By Little and producer of Little Salon, a D.C.-based arts and
ALL OVER THE MAP
Bradley Walp ’01 connects the dots to aid Republican electoral outcomes.