There have always been outliers, people in tech who are willing to volunteer to help certain candidates. An even smaller percentage of techies quit their jobs to join campaigns. Still, it’s probably safe to say that most tech employees, who are also U.S. citizens, have long viewed the extent of their obligation as Americans to vote for their preferred candidate — then get back to work.
The surprising rise of Donald Trump has changed that stance in largely liberal Silicon Valley. In fact, more than 3,000 skilled tech workers have now signed on to help a nonprofit called Tech for Campaigns that injects tech talent into the campaigns of centrist and liberal candidates who need advice and tools to better make use of Facebook and Twitter, craft individualized emails for segmented voters and much more.
More people are signing up to help every day, too, particularly now that the low-flying organization is raising its profile a bit to further that momentum.
It has been writing explainers, for example, including this one in Quartz, on the importance of focusing on so-called down-ballot (non-presidential) state races. Tech for Campaigns also recently launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise $250,000 to hire additional full-time employees who can help its three co-founders — entrepreneurs Jessica Alter, Pete Kazanjy and Ian Ferguson — run the organization. (It has 23 days remaining to reach its goal.)
We talked recently with Alter about that campaign, as well as to get a better understanding of the specific candidates Tech for Campaigns is aiming to help, and how. Our chat, following, has been edited for length.
TC: You’d previously started a founder dating company that was sold. How did you end up starting this nonprofit?
JA: Peter and I and our other co-founder, Ian, are all tech founders, and the election last year woke us up. After the inauguration, there was one alarming executive order after another. I like posting on social media, but saying, “I can’t take this anymore” wasn’t helping, and we were seeing the same from many people we know who wanted to do more but weren’t sure how.
TC: “60 Minutes” recently aired a segment with Trump’s digital head, who said Facebook employees embedded themselves with the campaign, trying to provide it expert help. He also said the Clinton campaign was offered some of the same help and declined it. Is your organization trying to get the job done for Democrats that they aren’t getting done themselves?
JA: We’re not saying that tech is coming in to save politics. But for every dollar spent on campaigns, only 5 to 10 percent goes to digital right now, which is a little crazy in 2017. Americans spend 5.6 hours a day online, yet 60 to 70 percent [of marketing dollars are] still going to TV and paper mail.
There are many under-exploited digital strategies [that campaigns could be using], like testing out messages, targeting people who wouldn’t necessarily watch TV but can be reached online and being able to show [return on investment] on that spend. So a lot of what we’re doing is educating campaign managers, many of whom come from field ops backgrounds. They build their careers by knocking on doors and making calls, which is important. But they don’t necessarily understand all the digital tools they could be using.
TC: You’re helping progressive and centrist campaigns play catch-up here. Who is signing up to help you with them?
JA: A lot of people. What started as a Google Doc in January with our friends became 700 sign-ups in a few days’ time. We now have more than 3,000 skilled digital volunteers who have day jobs but are willing and able to be deployed in small campaigns. By the end of next month, we’ll have completed 50 campaign projects; we’re hoping to tackle 500 by the end of 2018 midterm elections.
TC: Tell us about some of those projects, and how you settled on them.
JA: We’re doing a project in Virginia for a state legislator, for example, where we’re taking the list of [potential voters the campaign has] and helping them segment it in a much more detailed way so it can send different messages that have been designed for different lists. We’re also helping them understand the return [the return on investment] in that effort.
We also got very involved in a special election in Montana in May.
TC: Ugh. Where Republican Greg Gianforte won Montana’s seat in the House of Representatives, despite roughing up a reporter days earlier? What did your involvement entail? I remember he was up against a novice.
JA: We ran a Facebook program and a get-out-the-vote texting program for [that first-time candidate, Democrat Rob Quist]. Most of that state voted [via] absentee ballot, though, so most had cast their votes before that [scuffle with the reporter] happened.
TC: Looking back, is there anything different you would have done with that campaign or any other?
JA: There are things we wish we could have tried, but given the time we were working with — remember, this was a special election to fill a seat vacated by someone who’d joined Trump’s cabinet — we were proud of what we accomplished. [Quist’s camp] wasn’t going to do a texting project and we pushed them to do that.
TC: What other types of projects can you spin up for candidates?
JA: There are basically four categories, including digital basics like creating websites; email and analytics, which means marketing, getting more out of voter lists and voter data; social and digital media, which includes running paid digital programs; and engineering and data science-type projects.
One thing we’ve done for 2017 is focus on Virginia, which is one of two states that has a midterm election in less than 30 days. The governor is being elected and [the outcome will be seen as test of Trump’s popularity]. In fact, all 100 members of Virginia’s House of Delegates will go before voters. Republicans hold a majority of the chamber now, and are only one seat away from having a super majority, [and we want to change that].”
TC: How sort of “customized” would you say your various efforts are?
JA: We’re building technology to be shared across campaigns, as well as best practice toolkits. Building the former is what most of our [resources] will go toward. We’re building tech that we’ve seen missing — not reinventing email — then we’re allowing campaigns and state parties that are usually priced out to access it.
TC: How do you prioritize projects or campaigns?
JA: We have a data team that’s scoring every district in every state in the country to understand winnability. Then we work with state caucuses, which sort of oversee the races at the party level. We can do data modeling that helps them understand redistricting, for example, while they meanwhile know a lot that we don’t. We might say, “We think it’s these 25 districts,” and they’ll add their own on-the-ground understanding, explaining that a district is difficult because of XYZ that doesn’t show up in the data.
TC: How long do you typically engage with a campaign? Potential volunteers might like to know.
JA: Everything is scoped into a project with campaigns, and projects are typically four- to eight- week-long commitments involving three to five people who opt in. Most have day jobs and are fitting this work into their nights and weekends.
TC: That’s significant.
JA: When we speak with volunteers, they say the same thing over and over, which is that this is allowing them to volunteer their time and skills in a way that’s more impactful, without having to quit a job and join the campaign trail.
Maybe it means giving up drinks with friends for a month, but 60 percent of our volunteers have never been involved in politics outside of voting, and they’re very ready to help.
For much more on Tech for Campaigns — including how the likes of Senator Cory Booker and YC president Sam Altman are getting involved — check out its Indiegogo page here.