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Power Trip

Can the Tech Industry Do What the Dems Can’t?

Democrats are notoriously bad at turning out for midterm elections. Silicon Valley is directing money and muscle to finding solutions outside the party structure.

Art: Mark Weaver

UUnderstanding the roots of the progressive tech wave that’s risen since 2016 requires looking back more than two years, before the election of Donald Trump, to when the Silicon Valley types first started arriving in Washington, D.C., in droves.

After the disastrous launch of, the Obama administration hired former Google engineer Mikey Dickerson to modernize government from the inside. Dickerson’s credentials were sound. The only question was how he and his ilk would assimilate to life in Washington, D.C. In other words, whether they’d wear suits and ties.

‘Is this the same old business as usual or are they actually going to listen?’

Dickerson made the concession of wearing button-down shirts instead of T-shirts, he said in a 2014 White House video announcing the formation of the U.S. Digital Service, a sort of proactive “Geek Squad” for the government. He added that for all of his Silicon Valley friends decamping to D.C., suits were not part of the everyday attire.

Broadcasting that detail was an important part of how the engineers Dickerson was trying to recruit would perceive the role. “Because that’s just the quickest shorthand way of asking, ‘Is this the same old business as usual, or are they actually going to listen?’” he said.

The answer to that question, as it turns out, was a little of both. Which is why techies, including Dickerson and a cadre of others like him with experience in D.C., have moved on to overcoming another entrenched challenge: independently developing technology to spur Democrats to vote in non-presidential elections, something the party has been dismal at for years.

The way Silicon Valley types see it, the top-down, party-driven system is overdue for disruption. Backed by some of the tech sector’s most prominent investors and driven largely by the corps of politics-savvy techies who worked for Obama, they’re putting their significant financial and technological muscle behind building an ever-growing list of apps and tech tools focused on supporting grassroots mobilization and fundraising for progressive campaigns.

Jorge Aguilar, executive director for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), admits that many of the new campaign groups are “taking matters into their own hands,” and though his boss has been able to coordinate with some of them, others have forsaken the system altogether.

There’s certainly no lack of new aspiring pols for all of this emerging campaign tech to support. Following Trump’s victory in 2016, a wave of liberal “resistance” candidates sprung up across the country for the fall 2018 ballots. The voter energy in this midterm cycle is at a historic high as well, with 61 percent of registered voters saying they are more enthusiastic about voting than in past congressional elections, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey, higher than at any point during midterms in the past two decades.

The new progressive campaign tech groups are trying to find the best ways to channel that energy. “I and many others in the tech sector who are civically engaged are investing an enormous amount of resources and energy into efforts around the midterm elections in November,” said Ron Conway, a top Silicon Valley venture capitalist, philanthropist, and fundraiser for progressives, in an email.

The difference this time is that Conway is doing it outside the system. For years, significant portions of his political contributions regularly went to establishment players like 78-year-old Democratic leader and 15-term congresswoman Nancy Pelosi. He gave $43,800 to the Nancy Pelosi Victory Fund in 2015–16, $42,600 in 2013–14, and $35,800 in 2011–12, along with several thousands of dollars to her campaign committee each cycle. In the current cycle, Conway’s largest contribution reported so far is $25,000 — to Indivisible Action, the political action committee arm for a national network of volunteer-led progressive teams. He has contributed nothing to Pelosi since 2017, according to FEC data.

Instead of throwing his weight behind an establishment figure unpopular with many insurgent progressives, Conway has been focused on supporting what he called “true grassroots” organizations like Indivisible. Conway said he is not working with “traditional political parties” and D.C.-based groups.

“New strategies to win demand new, more innovative tools, and so I’ve also been investing in a new wave of grassroots organizing technology for these activists and leaders,” Conway said. Among his investments are Higher Ground Labs, an accelerator funding a range of progressive campaign tech organizations, and the Movement Cooperative, which uses a membership model to bring progressive groups the “best-in-class data and technology resources… at the cheapest possible price point.”

Some of the progressive groups that have emerged in the shadow of Trump’s election are so confident in their tactics to win the House that they have built their tech to engage more voters in elections while not walling it off from conservatives.

Higher Ground Labs, which has backing from other big tech-world names, such as LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and venture investor Chris Sacca, launched in May 2017. While independent of the national party, it boasts a founding team that knows campaign machinery inside and out: Betsy Hoover was the online organizing director for Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, Shomik Dutta worked on both Obama campaigns and in the administration, and Andrew McLaughlin was deputy chief technology officer in the Obama administration.

So far, Higher Ground Labs has backed 23 companies, with an average check size of $100,000. “These are risky bets, and we are comfortable placing a bunch of small bets on super early stage companies that are unproven,” Hoover says. Those bets span the gamut of campaign tech, from public-opinion polling company Change Research to Invest Left, an app for tracking political contributions.

While establishment groups like the Democratic National Committee and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee can help scale new approaches and the DNC tech team helped shape the guidance Higher Ground Labs uses to determine which groups to invest in, “We can’t expect them to be all things,” says Higher Ground’s Betsy Hoover. Half of the companies Higher Ground Labs invested in last year have national contracts with the national Democratic Party and the House Democrats, but there’s still general agreement that it’s best for a nimbler team like Higher Ground Labs to take on the risky bets that come with trying to innovate and to think longer term. Traditionally, campaign technologies were quickly forgotten once the campaigns were over; the idea this time is to back tech that can progressive groups can use at all campaign levels in perpetuity.

Some of the progressive groups that have emerged in the shadow of Trump’s election are so confident in their tactics to win the House that they have built their tech to engage more voters in elections while not walling it off from conservatives.

For his part, Dickerson founded the New Data Project in 2017. The 501(c)(4) includes fellow alumni of the Obama administration and the tech sector. Its first product is VoteWithMe, an app based around the finding that a text message from someone you know is 20 times more likely to get you to vote than door-to-door canvassing.

The app’s users can see which people in their phone’s contact list live in key districts, and they can check people’s voting records to write a targeted text message encouraging those people to get out and vote. Even though the team behind the app bills itself as “an advanced technology research lab for progressives,” it doesn’t push people toward progressive candidates.

Since research has shown that most young people would vote progressive, and young people are more likely to use apps, the assumption is that the app will be used predominantly by progressives. The bet seems to be proving out so far. VoteWithMe was used in the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District, where Democrat Conor Lamb won. It was also used in the special election in Arizona’s 8th District, where the Democratic candidate’s loss was narrow enough to be considered a good sign for the party’s chances in the fall.

Another noteworthy effort is MobilizeAmerica, an app founded by Alfred Johnson, a former field organizer for the Obama campaign. Johnson witnessed Northern California’s political energy firsthand in Obama 2008 and noted the sizable gap between that and what he found in Iowa. Johnson and co-founder Allen Kramer created MobilizeAmerica as a central place for campaigns and other groups to share their own events, discover other events, and encourage their members to participate and cultivate that energy. It is now used in more than 430 campaigns across the country, including statewide races, congressional races, and down-ballot races all the way to local school boards. Some 153,000 volunteers have signed up on its site for more than 255,000 volunteer shifts.

It’s unclear exactly what bearing these technologies will have on 2018 and 2020, and certainly a measure of skepticism is reserved for the idea that the solution to Democratic woes is chiefly technological. Robert Shrum, who is now a professor of political science and director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California after a long career in Democratic political strategy, cautions against losing sight of other campaign fundamentals in the rush to develop killer voter apps.

As Hillary Clinton found out when she tried to run a campaign driven by data analytics, Shrum says, “If you lose the message war, you’re going to lose the campaign.”

“I don’t think the medium is the message,” he says. “You need both medium and message.”

Reporter covering tech, politics and how they influence each other.

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