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Political candidates are feverishly (sorry) trying to figure out how to win elections this year when all they’ve ever known about campaigning has gone out the window.
For the foreseeable future, at least, there will be no rallies, town halls, rope lines, door-knocking volunteers or in-person voter registration.
As a result, coronavirus has made digital organizing the hottest thing in US politics right now.
“We’re getting inundated,” said Sangeeth Peruri, CEO of the liberal organizing software platform OutreachCircle.
In the past two weeks, The Tuesday Company, another liberal tech startup for digital organizing, has seen its inbounds jump from 10-20 per week to more than 300, said CEO Michael Luciani.
Presidential or high-profile campaigns already use organizing software. But since operatives in political hotspots such as Washington, DC, New York City and Los Angeles went into isolation, Luciani senses a new urgency from advocacy groups, consultancies and nonprofits that previously hesitated exploring new tools.
Those who control political budgets for events and in-person organizing networks (i.e. campaign operations) must figure out how to convert those programs into something useful, Peruri said.
Platforms such as OutreachCircle, The Tuesday Company and Buzz360, a conservative digital organizing company, use phones as the linchpin. Volunteers can download an app for a list of targets in their area. The main use case right now is peer-to-peer texting, so candidates can get the word out about their campaigns without rallies and TV studio appearances.
The most impactful way to reach a potential voter – aside from news coverage – is through their friends and family members, said Buzz360 CEO Lisa Schneegans. Organizing software lets a campaign push names to volunteers, so they can try to persuade people they know, or even just find out which issues matter to them. That’s the kind of data campaigns would get from door-to-door canvassers.
If candidates embrace digital organizing this year, they may even find advantages compared to in-person outreach, Peruri said. A stranger knocking on a door is more productive than a stranger making calls, but messages from a friend are more effective than both.
It is slower and more difficult though. If a campaign hires organizers and has a pool of volunteers, it can knock on hundreds of doors and reach thousands of people in a short time, Peruri said. Digital organizing requires the campaign to obtain data – phone numbers, primarily, with a splash of email – in order to target people.
But campaigns don’t need volunteers and contacts in every district. The 2016 presidential race was decided in 15-20 precincts in a few key states, Peruri said. Candidates are focusing where they can make the most difference, even if they can’t knock on every door.
Digital organizing also requires more grassroots training. With in-person operations, a campaign organizer keeps volunteers focused and contextualizes the work, Luciani said. Volunteers need to understand that they’re canvassing in a crucial area for turnout, say, or that they’re reaching potential supporters who previously donated for a specific issue.
“One thing we have to convey to our clients is that they still have a big burden to help their supporters understand what and why they’re being asked to do certain things,” Luciani said.
Democrats have more quickly adopted digital organizing. In the past two weeks, the Democratic National Committee has made a big push to educate organizers.
🚨In the past 6 days, my team @TheDemocrats has trained over 1,500 people on digital organizing & so far, we’ve seen over 4,300 signups for trainings across the board. We’re adding more & more sessions to keep going because #digitalisorganizing & that’s critical right now. 🚨
— Meg DiMartino (@MegDiMartino) March 26, 2020
And it isn’t just this cycle. Of the 44 House seats that flipped from Republican to Democrat in 2018, 34 were campaigns where the Democrat used digital organizing tools and the Republican did not, Schneegans said.
In this cycle, successful candidates will pioneer digital outreach, she said. Peer-to-peer texting is taking off. Campaigns will measure success by engagement with their apps if states are still locked down by mid-summer, and virtual town halls and webinars could draw potential supporters.
“The most effective thing is to look someone in the eye and make a personal connection. But that’s just not happening,” Schneegans said. “What’s critical now is to reach people who want to find out about the candidates and, frankly, probably have a lot of time on their hands.”
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Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the presidential race a month ago, but last Friday her campaign announced it’s open-sourcing its in-house technology.
“Our hope is that other Democratic candidates and progressive causes will use the ideas and code we developed to run stronger campaigns and help Democrats win,” according to a Medium post by the Warren tech team.
There is a peer-to-peer texting tool that saved the Warren campaign $580,000. “Spoke” is a forked version of tech developed by MoveOn, a liberal advocacy group. Many of the other features are for integrations between campaigns and common liberal data hubs such as the DNC, MobilizeAmerica and VoteBuilder.
“Our intention in open-sourcing it is to demonstrate that some problems campaigns face do not require vendor tools and are solved reasonably effectively and efficiently with a tiny bit of code,” according to the post.
Arguments over whether to open-source campaign tech are common in political developer circles. It’s a small world of product developers who jump between candidates, advocacy groups and political agencies or consultancies, so they don’t mind sharing code between themselves.
“You hate to see useful tech die with a campaign,” said one liberal campaign developer who saw promising products disappear after Beto O’Rourke’s unsuccessful 2018 Texas Senate bid and Bernie Sanders’ 2016 primary. “The flip side of the coin, unfortunately, is that if it is really useful you don’t want to make it available to the other side.”