The Army of Silicon Valley Activists Trying to Elect Democrats
Ryan Ko spends his work days bouncing between conference calls and strategy meetings. But Ko—a 28-year-old MIT-trained McKinsey & Company consultant in San Francisco—is also a political junkie. So last year, when Donald Trump’s electoral chances started looking nontrivial, he dropped everything and headed to Virginia for three months to volunteer as a regional director for Hillary Clinton. She won the state by more than 5 percentage points, one blue state in the sea of Southern red. (Ko’s LinkedIn profile reads: #ImStillWithHer.)
Then he had to deal with a massive post-election hangover. “I come back to my liberal bubble in the Bay Area in December, start my white-collar job on the 48th floor of the second-tallest building in San Francisco, with my five-dollar cup of Philz Coffee,” he says. “And I wondered: ‘How do I stay involved?’ ”
To start, Ko wrote a Medium post with a title cribbed from a Bernie tweet (“Democracy is Not a Spectator Sport”) urging his fellow Women’s Marchers into three levels of continuing activism, from donating money to calling their elected officials to the third level: “Be the Change.” Ko, it should be obvious by now, is a level three kind of guy: This spring he led a group of 10 Silicon Valley types to canvass in Georgia for the handsomely financed but ultimately unsuccessful congressional candidate Jon Ossoff. He also signed up for a group forged after Election Day called Tech for Campaigns, part of an emerging resistance movement in Silicon Valley.
In the wake of Trump’s election, signs of a grassroots activism in the tech industry have been everywhere: management-endorsed Googleplex protests; tech workers participating in their first political marches; executives from Tesla, Intel, and IBM leaving the president’s advisory councils. There’s also a growing realization that the most effective form of resistance is winning state and local elections. It’s an uphill struggle: Republicans now control both statehouse chambers in 32 states (up from 14 in 2010) and 34 of the 50 governorships (not to mention the US House and Senate and the presidency). Conservatives have spent decades—and especially the Obama years—cultivating these lower-profile electoral pastures, grooming political talent for higher offices and experimenting with policies that can go national. In the process, they have often passed voter suppression laws and redrawn districts, paving the path for Republican wins years down the line.
The spate of tech-oriented grassroots organizations that have emerged in 2017 are finally learning from that Republican playbook, trying to build up power in time for the redistricting that will follow the 2020 census. The list of new organizations includes Tech for Campaigns, Flippable, MobilizeAmerica, Run for Something, Sister District, Pantsuit Nation, the Arena, and One Vote at a Time. But they are playing the game their way—by outfitting down-ballot campaigns with top tech industry volunteers, using data science to funnel efforts to the most winnable districts, and harnessing the latest digital tools for organizing volunteers, connecting their supporters, and crowdfunding donations and their own operations costs.
Nearly a year after the election, these groups have matured and gained donors, members, and confidence. Sister District, which connects volunteers in blue districts with candidates in swing areas, boasts 25,000 people who have participated in at least one action—and three of its four cofounders have quit their jobs to run it full time. Tech for Campaigns has signed up nearly 3,000 volunteers, completed 50 projects, and launched a crowdfunding campaign to enable it to participate in 500 races in 2018’s midterm showdown. Meanwhile, Clinton campaign vets launched Flippable, crunching data to identify the most winnable seats and crowdsourcing donations to finance them. Now it has nine full-time staff, has siphoned $550,000 and 3,000 volunteers into state-level campaigns across the country, and hopes to help up to 100 candidates next year.
The first real statewide test of these new organizations will arrive November 7 when Virginia voters go to the polls to elect members of the commonwealth’s House of Delegates election. Virginia is one of only two states with off-year elections this year, and the only swing state. (The other is New Jersey, which is safely Democratic.) Meanwhile, Virginia has shown itself to lean blue in statewide elections—it has Democratic governor and two Democratic US senators—yet the House of Delegates is a staggering 66–34 Republican. All 100 delegates are up for election next month: Dems need to gain 17 seats to get a majority. (On the other hand, if Republicans gain just one more seat they’d have a supermajority to override a governor veto.)
Certainly, the state’s gubernatorial race is more high-profile—attracting Trump tweets and an Obama appearance, plus big national money for the candidates, Republican Ed Gillespie and Democrat Ralph Northam, including more than $700,000 from Tom Steyer’s NextGen Climate Action for the Democrat*. Paul Krugman recently wrote in a New York Times op-ed: “Folks, right now this is where the action is: Virginia is now the most important place on the US political landscape—and what happens there could decide the fate of the nation.” At a recent event in Reston, a DC suburb, Joe Biden said a Democratic win in Virginia would “give people hope we are not falling into this know-nothing pit.” Meanwhile, vice president Mike Pence said at a campaign stop in the Trumpian southwestern part of the state, “Tell somebody President Trump and I need Ed Gillespie to be the next governor of Virginia.”
But the new resistance orgs see the down-ballot races—usually boot-strap, low budget affairs—as the places where their grassroots money, tech savvy, and volunteers go further. Suddenly the race for 17 seats in a Southern statehouse is something much bigger: not just a test of Democrats’ ability to ride an anti-Trump backlash into office but a dry run for 2018 and a test of how much techie allies like Ryan Ko can help.
In August, Ko slipped out of a work meeting in that 48th floor office for an extracurricular call—this one from Virginia. Leading the meeting was the candidate Tech for Campaigns had assigned Ko’s team: Jennifer Carroll Foy, a public defender who is running to represent a diverse DC commuter district in northern Virginia with stark economic inequality.
On the stump, Foy talks about bread-and-butter issues like busting gnarly traffic, boosting teacher salaries, and expanding Medicaid to more Virginians. But she also ventures into national topics, like being “pissed off” by Trump. It doesn’t take a McKinsey consultant to figure out she has good chances in her district, where 56 percent of voters supported Clinton (and just 39 percent Trump). The current delegate, a Republican, is retiring and won the last election by a mere 125 votes. It is, in other words, a likely pickup for Democrats. The state party has been pouring resources into her campaign, and Senator Tim Kaine and former Vice President Biden have endorsed her.
As Ko listened in, Foy’s campaign manager Teddy Smyth explained the help he needed on the digital front. One Tech for Campaigns team would revamp Foy’s website (a basic placeholder Foy had built herself on Wix). Another group would focus on paid Facebook advertising. A third team would trawl through donor databases to find people who, as Ko puts it, “if called by the campaign to donate, would.” (Their goal: $250,000.) Ko was assigned to coordinate this effort with two other volunteers. One was a software engineer for a health tech firm in Philadelphia, who protested for the first time after Trump’s Muslim travel ban. The other was a New York–based programmer for Bloomberg, who said this was his first dip into politics beyond donating.
Before these volunteers showed up, Smyth had Foy methodically calling potential donors—by manually looking up their phone numbers one at a time and handing them to her. Ko’s efficiency-driven mind reeled: “We’re like, ‘You’re wasting time,’ ” he says. The two engineers on Ko’s team created an automated script to get the numbers for 3,000 names that Tech for Campaigns had earlier scraped from publicly available records of Democratic donors in Virginia.
They compiled the data into a Google Sheet—names, phone numbers, and a donation history. And then they gave Foy’s campaign a quick tutorial on how to use it. “I knew technology is something we could do better,” Smyth says, “but just didn’t know how to do it. I was able to grow my team by 12 people”—Tech for Campaigns volunteers, free of charge—“and am thrilled with the outcome.” The calls that Foy and her finance director made off of Ko’s list have generated roughly one-sixth of their campaign budget.
Tech for Campaigns’ intervention is just the beginning of the help the Foy campaign is getting from the tech-fueled post-Trump groups. A film crew from One Vote at a Time flew in from Los Angeles and Oakland, invading Foy’s house with boom lights and microphones to film a professional campaign ad for free. (One Vote at a Time crowdfunded $36,000 to produce in-depth ads for three Virginia candidates, and one of its filmmakers invited scores of other candidates to a studio to produce shorter ones.) Run for Something—a group encouraging millennials to run for office—sent canvassers, and volunteers have been able to sign up for shifts via MobilizeAmerica.
Every Tuesday, Smyth has a group call with representatives of 40 groups, including longstanding progressive allies like Emily’s List combined with the latest upstarts, like Flippable, which brought in $15,000 in national donations to Foy. The groups working on delegate races have a Slack channel and a monthly call to make sure they’re not tripping over each other. Foy’s Sister Districts in Massachusetts and Vermont have sent nearly $10,000, including money collected by the Vermont group’s soup subscription. All in all, Foy was able to raise $298,000 by the most recent campaign finance filing deadline compared to her opponent’s $103,000.
Even groups that aren’t offering tech assistance per se are using off-the-shelf technology to build their own internal infrastructure. For example, Sister District founder Rita Bosworth is an attorney—not a programmer—but she easily built the organization’s website on Squarespace. The week after the election, she had penned a Facebook post in a lawyer’s forum suggesting an idea for directing the Democratic political energy wasted in already deeply blue areas to instead flip red ones. “Six hundred people ‘liked’ my comment, which is a record for me,” Bosworth says with a chuckle. The group assigns its volunteers in blue congressional districts to phone bank, canvass, and make donations to a specific down-ballot race on swing turf.
The organization expanded using MailChimp and Slack, plus fund-raising platforms ActBlue and Crowdpac. Some of their more tech-minded volunteers—employees at Google, Facebook, and Amazon—crunched data to identify winnable elections in Virginia this year and thousands of seats for midterms next year, the equivalent of “the Harry Potter sorting hat,” quips Sister District political director Gaby Goldstein.
Sister District started with data already compiled by the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, Daily Kos, Ballotpedia, US Census, and state party data to identify the most strategic seats. The team then looked more closely at those seats—their Cooke Partisan Voting Index score of political leanings, how much Dems raised there in prior cycles, voter turnout rate. Goldstein contacted political groups on the ground in each district to learn what numbers alone don’t show—maybe a college town that would be more amenable to outsider help or a Republican incumbent with a Democratic family who may be harder to unseat. “The community context you can’t get from a spreadsheet,” Goldstein says. They homed in on 13 Virginia candidates—who overlap with many of those targeted by the new spate of organizations. So far, Sister District’s volunteers have fund-raised $215,000 for Virginia delegate races, Bosworth says.
On a weeknight in August, San Francisco’s branch of Sister District gathered to boost their assigned Virginia candidate. In the coming weeks, they’d meet for weekend phone banking and postcard-writing, but this night was about money. About 50 San Francisco Democrats of Nancy Pelosi’s 12th district gathered in the outdoor patio of a dive bar in the city’s Mission District to make donations while they partied.
The middle-aged crowd donned Sister District pins, dug into plates of tater-tot nachos, and watched a low-budget video of a stump speech by Elizabeth Guzman, the Peruvian-born candidate whose platform calls for raising Virginia’s $7.25-an-hour minimum wage and extending driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. (Told of the scene over the phone, the Virginia House Democratic Caucus director Trent Armitage marveled, “A couple years ago a candidate like Elizabeth Guzman having a fund-raiser in San Francisco would have been unheard of.”)
After the video, the crowd woo-hoo-ed Guzman’s platform and booed the 15-year incumbent’s vote for defunding Planned Parenthood. They texted a number to receive a link to Guzman’s ActBlue donation page. A retired Intel salesman wearing a Linux Foundation hoodie strummed a guitar and sang a folk song that he’d written, working an Edward Snowden reference into the verses’ lineup of resistance figures:
Who am I, just a tech nerd/Working for the NSA/Releasing all those secrets/Now change is gonna come
By the end of the night, the group had donated $2,000 to Guzman, double the event’s goal.
Tech alone will not win elections, but Daniel Kreiss, a University of North Carolina associate professor who studies tech in electoral politics, says down-ballot is where the tech-targeting can make the most impact. “They’re figuring out which doors to knock on, which voters are most likely to show up and vote and be persuadable,” he says. “So to the extent you can figure out where to direct limited campaign resources, that’s where the technology and data would give you a competitive advantage.”
Certainly gaining 17 seats is no small feat, but Tech for Campaigns founder Jessica Alter says she—along with many of the other new orgs—are taking the long view: getting Dems into state power nationwide before the 2021 redistricting. “One of the reasons we’ve lost so many seats is because Democrats don’t invest and end up giving up and saying ‘not winnable right now.’ We didn’t win in Montana and Kansas special elections this year, but we came a hell of a lot closer. And maybe in the next cycle we can win.”
Alter became an activist in the wake of Trump’s first travel ban in January. A San Francisco startup founder between companies, she halted mid-jog to text a friend (“I can’t sit there and let it be a slow boil to Nazism”)—and then launched a questionnaire asking tech talent to volunteer for Democratic candidates. Alter dug into research on tech in politics and learned something that astonished her: In a time when people’s ideas of politics are largely formed and expressed online, just 5 to 10 percent of Democratic campaign budgets is spent in the digital realm. She learned from Google’s election team that Republican 2016 Senate campaigns outspent Democrats 3:1 on the platform. So she became determined to bring digital tools to down-ballot campaigns for free, having volunteer tech specialists pitch in a few hours a week to apply their skills in social media, donor research, website assistance, and data science to a specific campaign.
To continue the rollout to the 2018 elections and hire staff, the group launched a crowdfunding campaign in October with a $250,000 goal (and, by press time, had already raised more than $186,000) to support the rollout of 500 projects. Tech for Campaigns enticed donors by giving them exclusive access to digital panel discussions on tech in politics from the likes of Y Combinator president Sam Altman and US senator Cory Booker.
As these groups play the role of flashy startups to the institutional Democratic Party, the party is still figuring out whether or how to engage them directly. Virginia caucus director Armitage has welcomed the grassroots help, which he says is “necessary to keep pace with what the Koch Brothers and right-wing groups are doing to support our opponents.” Still, Bosworth, the Sister District founder, says she’s gotten a more tepid reaction. “I was so convinced they were going to come and snap Sister District up”—as part of the official party operations—“but it didn’t happen.” In fact, she says, “I got a phone call from the local Democratic party leader. He reached out and asked, half-jokingly, if I was a libertarian spy.”
In the short term for Virginia, it’s going to take a mixture of grassroots energy and technical help, plus party organizations and voters’ Trump-piqued anger, to claw back any of the 17 seats the Dems covet. Beyond leading his Tech for Campaigns team, Ryan Ko also wanted to dive into old-school tactics. The day after his first call with Foy, Ko flew to Virginia to canvass for a fellow former Clinton volunteer he knew who is now running for delegate. After Ko’s plane landed at Dulles, he and his girlfriend took in the news bubbling up on their phones: White supremacists were marching on Charlottesville with tiki torches. They debated: Would their limited time in Virginia be better spent counterprotesting neo-Nazis?
The McKinsey consultant ran the electoral ROI in his head: A counterprotest has symbolic and moral heft and is good optics for the news. Yet Ko knew that, even in the age of Facebook and donor targeting, facetime with voters is still the most effective way to get people to the polls. Foy’s campaign aims to knock—twice—on the doors of their targeted supporters.
In the end, the decision was obvious. “Protesting is great and important,” Ko says. “But in this day and age, it’s got to be more than showing up on a Saturday. Turning votes is what matters.” And that’s the option he chose.
- Correction: An earlier version of this article said that Sean Parker recently donated $200,000 to Democrat Ralph Northam. That donation was made in 2013.