Silicon Valley is flipping elections in its spare time

Image: Andrew Kelly / Reuters
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In a recount for Virginia’s 94th district House of Delegates, Democratic challenger Shelly Simonds trails Republican incumbent David Yancey by just 10 votes (paywall). The final result will determine whether Virginia’s legislature flips to the Democrats, a party victory that would cap off a nearly clean sweep (paywall) of local elections. But eight months ago, getting even this far seemed a moonshot: Like virtually all local candidates, Simonds didn’t have the cash for high-powered consultants. What she did have, though, was access to thousands of volunteers from Silicon Valley.

Tech for Campaigns, a San Francisco group that connects tech volunteers with progressive and centrist campaigns, matched Simonds up with experienced digital marketers, designers, and video producers from companies such as Netflix, Google, and Amazon. With their help, she was able to test different campaign messages, and distribute them across Facebook, Instagram, and other channels in just a few weeks. Simonds’ campaign advisor, Sam Drzymala, says those materials reached 200% more people than previous efforts.

It’s not anything your average venture-backed startup wouldn’t do, but it’s virtually unheard of for local politicians.

This fall, 14 Democratic candidates in Virginia received help from Tech for Campaigns, which coordinated 150 volunteers in 12 races to handle tasks such as building websites, running paid digital media, and automating fundraising lists. Andrew Whitley‏, the campaign manager for Chris Hurst, a former journalist who beat a Republican in Virginia’s 12th district, attributed his candidate’s win to the organization.

Tech for Campaigns founder Jessica Alter describes its mission as enabling long-term political volunteerism that wins elections. ”We are pairing people with technology,” she says. “In politics, one without the other does not win.”

They’re not alone. MobilizeAmerica, PurplePatriot, Countable, Flippable, VoterCircle, Ground Game, The Tuesday Company, and Ballot Ready are among the new startups entering the scene, many in Virginia. They’re adapting tools and tech from business to make campaigns more efficient, from text-messaging friends to automating sales-style outreach. Most try to funnel the enthusiasm of voters and activists into state and local campaigns that have been starved for talent and cash. Flippable, for example, tapped national donors to raise $600,000 for down-ballot candidates in 2017; the group says only 0.4% of its donors for the Virginia election had given to local candidates in the last election.

“So many people in Silicon Valley woke up the morning after the election and said, ‘We have to do something with these incredible skills we have and bring them into the political ecosystem,'” says Alfred Johnson, co-founder of Mobilize America, which matches volunteers with campaigns’ critical tasks. “I was part of that.”

Johnson volunteered for Barack Obama’s campaign in 2007, joined the White House staff, and then attended Stanford’s Graduate School of Business before working at a financial technology firm. Yet the chance to turn an unprecedented surge of political activism into a structural advantage for progressive politics lured him back. “This is the first time we’re building a similarly robust tech infrastructure [as the Obama campaign] that is not built around a single candidate,” he says. “We’re very rapidly moving toward a world where it is easier than it has ever been to give support to candidates and make [people’s] voices heard in support of policies they believe in.”

To gauge just how rapidly, analytics and data visualization firm Quid used investment and accelerator data to identify at least 148 political startups and non-profits with about $200 million in venture backing. Some are well-established, but more than a third have launched in the past two years. Most of them focus on engaging voters and influencing elected representatives through social media, automation, and personalized data.

Sign of things to come?

Democrats once held the advantage in online politics. As a candidate, Obama catapulted the Democratic party ahead of Republicans during his long-shot bid for the presidency. Forced to improvise due to a shortage of money, experience, and institutional backing, the Obama campaign doubled down on online advertising and email rather than massive television ad buys. The strategy brought in more than $500 million (paywall), most of it in donations of less than $100. That strategy ultimately powered one of modern politics’ most unlikely success stories, leading to the defeat of Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries and Republican John McCain in the national election.

Donald Trump took those lessons to heart in 2016. The Republican presidential candidate simply updated Obama’s playbook using modern social media marketing techniques, while spending just a fraction of his rivals’ budgets to eke out an electoral college victory over Clinton last November.

Trump’s campaign essentially adopted digital marketing 101 from the private sector. ”Trump took it to the next level,” says Betsy Hoover, founder of Higher Ground Labs, an incubator and accelerator for political technology. “They pushed the limits of the 2016 technology. Obama used the limits of 2012 technology.”

Trump’s campaign experimented with digital messages at an unprecedented scale for political campaigns. His team would run 40,000 to 50,000 variations of its ads on Facebook; Gary Coby, director of advertising at the Republican National Committee (RNC), who worked on the campaign, called it ”A/B testing on steroids.” Trump’s team would measure the performance of different formats, subtitles, images, video, and other variables. They energized an audience other politicians had overlooked.

Now Democrats are fighting to regain the edge. Despite Obama’s potential to repurpose his campaign infrastructure to shore up Democratic support, the party suffered during his White House years. Democrats lost more than 900 elected spots at the local, state, and national level, and very few of the lessons and resources from Obama’s victories trickled down to the state and local races.

Virginia is the

laboratory for 2018

The campaign landscape continues to shift under politicos’ feet, says Drzymala, former digital director for senator Cory Booker (and a volunteer advisor for Simonds’ campaign). Political professionals face a new reality, and Virginia’s election may prove to be a template for the nation.

“We are no longer in charge,” Drzymala wrote on Medium in October. He argues that “5+ activists”—”amateur volunteers spending five or more hours per week working as political activists”—have eclipsed established political players as the source of strength among Democrats, by engaging Congressional representativesorganizing marches and protests, rewriting party platforms, and leveraging swing-district opportunities. They are “taking real leadership in our party by doing jobs previously reserved for professional staff, and there is nothing we professionals can do to stop them,” Drzymala wrote.

Money, too, is flowing in new ways. Political venture firms have found their footing with New Media Ventures (NMV), a six-year-old seed fund that backs progressive technology and media startups, increasing its investments alongside left-leaning groups like Higher Ground Labs, New Left Accelerator, and Democracy Labs. Silicon Valley accelerator Y Combinator also accepted its first overtly political firm, the American Civil Liberties Union, and persuaded its executive director to hire a chief technology officer for the first time, The California Sunday Magazine reported.

Unbundling Democrats (and perhaps Republicans as well)

Republicans and Democrats are both waking up to this new reality, but abject defeat may force Democrats to reckon with their future more quickly.

Republicans have not yet built out a similar grass-roots infrastructure for technology, at least not in public. (The RNC did not respond to multiple inquiries.) But political professionals interviewed for this article said the organization has historically run more centralized efforts through a large, coordinated donor network.

That strategy has served the party well: Republicans now control the White House and Congress, as well as legislatures in 32 states they hold both chambers. They also own 34 of the 50 governorships. But its unclear how Republicans’ top-down strategy will fare against Democrats’ decentralized, loosely affiliated, and startup-oriented approach. The next cycle will pit one against the other.

Democrats, for their part, have little choice. The Democratic National Committee, originally created to be network of state parties, has drifted away from that mission by supporting specific campaigns and project management. Its recent record has not been pretty.

Hoover of Higher Ground Labs, who worked for Obama and the DNC until 2011, sees the latter reclaiming its role as a command-and-control center for data, systems, and best practices and norms, while startups step in to fill the breach. Hoover recalls rebuilding the same tools multiple times in the past decade at the DNC: a calling tool in 2008 for Obama, a similar one for all candidates in 2010, and then a third one for the 2012 reelection. “It was the exact same thing,” she says. “But the code lived with previous entities, and in the time to wrestle the code away, you could just build it.” With assists from organizations like Tech for Campaigns, the DNC can focus on acting as a national resource, while startups can curate top commercial technologies and build new ones as needed.

No silver bullet

Technology is no substitute for running compelling candidates capable of inspiring voters. Campaign methods  touted for decades have consistently been shown to fail in the field. A recent meta-analysis of multiple studies showed that “the best estimate for the persuasive effects of campaign contact and advertising—such as mail, phone calls, and canvassing—on Americans’ candidate choices in general elections is zero.” Witness Clinton’s huge ill-advised television ad buys at the end of her campaign, a classic tactic political scientists warn is virtually useless.

What technology does do well is mobilize voters by catalyzing existing energy, says Donald Green, a political science professor at Columbia University. Only a small fraction of voters are willing to go out and volunteer for candidates, but those that do have an outsized impact on the vote tallies on election day. Targeting and personalized messaging move the needle, says Green. Technology can tap into that at scale.

Will it decide elections? Trump’s victory hinged on 107,000 votes (paywall) out of more than 120 million cast— less than 0.1% of the electorate. For Shelly Simonds, and the Virginia House of Delegates, technology may be the difference between victory and defeat.