With Big Wins In Virginia, Democratic Campaign Tech Looks To Rebuild

After Democrats won an unexpected cascade of seats in the Virginia House of Delegates on Tuesday, liberal technologists and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) are hoping to scale the programs behind those successful bids to other state races in 2018.

Many of the data and technology products used by candidates in Virginia were backed by establishment party groups and by a separate network of tech industry executives, often taking an active role in campaigns for the first time.

It’s notable that the DNC got so deeply involved in the Virginia races, said Stu Trevelyan, president and CEO of NGP VAN, a shared Democratic database and campaign tech hub.

“This may be the first time we’ve seen the DNC so involved in a governor’s race and down the ballot like that,” Trevelyan said. “And it speaks to a new sense of the group’s role in campaigns after 2016.”

The DNC this year reorganized itself to meet new media, communications and technology demands – as has NGP VAN, the DNC’s main data and technology vendor.

But with limited resources, establishment organizations focused on five or six of the most competitive districts where they could unseat a Republican incumbent, said Dmitri Mehlhorn, a former fund manager who for the first time is bundling and advising on liberal contributions from tech entrepreneurs.

Mehlhorn oversaw more than $3 million in contributions from tech executives, including LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, to Democratic technology and get-out-the-vote efforts in Virginia. The group worked with all 88 delegates (12 seats were uncontested), he said, but particularly with the candidates who otherwise wouldn’t have gotten institutional support.

Presidential or congressional campaigns usually have an assigned expert and an agency vendor handling digital media. But at the statehouse level, the candidates themselves or their campaign managers manage technology and data tools.

“It’s about giving them an option outside of the tried-and-true old political playbook,” Mehlhorn said.

The investment approach taken by Mehlhorn and his peers is more like venture capital than traditional political support. The group is informal and doesn’t advertise or build technology, he said, “but we fund early and identify opportunities that are going to really scale.”

Democrats tested a lot of tech tools in Virginia, said Sangeeth Peruri, a former hedge fund manager who now runs VoterCircle, a liberal outreach and communications startup.

VoterCircle is backed by Higher Ground Labs, a VC-style incubator for political technology founded by Obama campaign and Silicon Valley industry vets, including Hoffman and Mehlhorn.

Higher Ground Labs’ startups, including VoterCircle and Ballot Ready, a data tool for driving turnout in down-ballot campaigns, were active in Virginia.

But Mehlhorn also funded local groups testing ideas like corporate turnout partnerships and parties hosted around polling locations, and his group was a major backer of the Win Virginia PAC, which distributed technology tools to House of Delegates candidates.

The DNC, which declined to comment, tested many technology vendors in Virginia, including startups from the Higher Ground Labs, according to four different founders requesting anonymity due to nondisclosure agreements.

Mehlhorn’s political VC group will also be working with the DNC and NGP VAN moving forward as it digs into what worked and what didn’t across its Virginia portfolio.

“As venture capitalists, our view is that most of our investments will fail and a few will change the game,” Mehlhorn said. As voting data comes back in a few months on turnout and demographics, Mehlhorn will be working with a liberal data analytics firm to attribute precise value and impact to strategies applied in different districts.

There are benefits to operating outside the political system and then feeding insights back in, Mehlhorn said, because candidates and supporting PACs aren’t equipped or incentivized to do data-driven testing.

A statehouse candidate isn’t going to set aside audiences as control groups, for instance, because he or she needs those voters. Some Virginia campaigns came down to double-digit vote margins. They aren’t going to have test budgets and they aren’t going to run autopsies – for good or bad, the campaign organization folds up after Election Day.

“Our money is next to nothing compared to the universe of Democratic tech and data in a cycle,” Mehlhorn said. “But we’re going to have this data that shows what you should spend on and what can scale, and it will very much be shared with the Democratic ecosystem.”

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