4,500 tech workers, 1 mission: get Democrats elected

Kevin Roose and Sheera Frenkel
Pascal Pavani | Getty Images

It was four months and eight days until the 2018 midterm elections, and Anna Eskamani had not spent a penny to promote her political campaign online.

Ms. Eskamani, 27, is running to represent Florida’s 47th District in the State Legislature. Like many state-level candidates, she writes her own fund-raising emails and manages her own social media accounts. And with her busy schedule on the campaign trail, advertising online is an afterthought.

“My budget is zero for it right now,” Ms. Eskamani said. “It just hasn’t been necessary.”

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One recent morning, Ms. Eskamani attended an hourlong phone conference with volunteers from a group called Tech for Campaigns, who hoped to change her mind.

Dozens of progressive groups are organizing for Democrats in this year’s midterms. But Tech for Campaigns has focused on a particularly challenging assignment: dragging Democratic campaigns into the digital age, before it is too late.

In a year and a half of existence, Tech for Campaigns has become a kind of Democratic Geek Squad — a national volunteer network consisting of more than 4,500 tech workers with day jobs at companies like Google, Facebook, Netflix and Airbnb. These volunteers, who include engineers, marketers and data scientists, are matched with Democratic campaigns across the country to provide training on digital skills, such as how to promote themselves on social media, build their email lists and use data analytics to identify potential donors.

“What’s at stake if we don’t build a true centralized digital arm is falling further behind the Republicans and continuing to lose ground, the battles on key issues and elections at every level,” said Jessica Alter, the group’s co-founder and a longtime tech executive. “If we don’t start now, it will be too late in 2020.”

One of the group’s biggest tasks, Ms. Alter said, is persuading candidates to campaign heavily on social media, rather than relying solely on TV ads and printed mailers. Many Democrats running in 2018 are spending a much smaller percentage of their ad budgets on digital ads compared with rivals, sometimes as little as 10 percent versus more than 40 percent for Republicans, according to two political consultants with ties to multiple campaigns.

Tech for Campaigns has advised Democrats in about 60 races since it started, including Justin Nelson, who is running for attorney general in Texas, and Rob Quist, who was narrowly defeated in a special congressional election in Montana last year. The group plans to work with 200 campaigns by the end of the year, with a special focus on helping state-level candidates like Ms. Eskamani, who typically do not have the budgets to hire dedicated digital teams.

“We do a lot of things that digital consultants don’t,” Ms. Alter said. “The most common question we get asked is, ‘What’s the catch?’”

When Ms. Alter started contacting campaigns last year, she was shocked at how prosaic their technology was. Some campaign workers spent hours manually copying and pasting voter information into email lists. Others were not using basic social media capabilities, such as call-to-action buttons that can be used to ask followers to sign a petition, attend an event or make a donation.

“They have all these really ingrained habits from pre-2016 that are very, very hard to unlearn,” Ms. Alter said.

Democrats are often thought to be tech-savvy, because the Obama campaigns of 2008 and 2012 were celebrated for their online touch and because much of Silicon Valley backs the party’s candidates. In fact, Ms. Alter said, Democrats in congressional and state-level races have been outmatched by their Republican rivals, who benefited from the party’s heavy tech investments during the Obama years and their enthusiastic embrace of targeted ads on platforms like Facebook and Google.

“People don’t understand how not far along we are as a party,” Ms. Alter said. “Obama was really good at tech, but it never trickled down to a Senate race, let alone the state-level stuff.”

In 2016, state and federal Republican campaigns outspent Democratic campaigns 3 to 1 on Google ads, according to a presentation made to political ad buyers by Google’s election team. From April to July of that year, the period when many campaigns were building their email lists and garnering early support, Republicans outspent Democrats 20 to 1, according to the presentation, which was obtained by The New York Times. Brad Parscale, the digital marketing executive who developed the Trump campaign’s social media-centric strategy in 2016, has been tapped as his campaign manager for 2020.

Democratic officials say they are catching up. The Democratic National Committee hired Raffi Krikorian, a former Uber executive, as its chief technology officer last year. Dan Sena, the executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the group’s digital budget had tripled, and that the party was “light years ahead of where it was” in 2016 because of new investments in its digital capabilities. Democrats are also getting help from outside groups like Higher Ground Labs, which finances start-ups that build campaign technology.

Ms. Alter, 38, who sold her start-up last year and now works as an entrepreneur-in-residence at the venture capital firm Social Capital, came up with the idea for a tech volunteer network in early 2017, just after President Trump issued his travel ban targeting residents of several Muslim-majority countries.

Outraged about the policy, and looking for a way to help, she enlisted Peter Kazanjy and Ian Ferguson, two friends in tech who shared her liberal politics. They agreed that Silicon Valley tech workers would jump at the opportunity to apply their technical skills to campaigns. How different is selling a candidate online, after all, than selling shoes or shaving kits?

“This is not rocket science,” Mr. Kazanjy said. “Campaigns are online/offline e-commerce plays, where the transaction is a vote.”

They sent a Google form to their friends in the tech industry to gauge interest. Within three days, more than 700 people had signed up. The group has since grown to more than 4,500 volunteers, raised more than $100,000 in a crowdfunding campaign, and moved into an office in downtown San Francisco that it shares with a venture capital firm.

Nick Hobbs, 29, first heard about Tech for Campaigns while working at Google. Mr. Hobbs, who left the company last year, had always been politically active, but Tech for Campaigns gave him a way to channel his efforts into something productive.

“Instead of coming home and watching Netflix, we come home and go to work,” said Mr. Hobbs, who is helping redesign the campaign website of Elizabeth Thomson, a Democrat running in New Mexico’s 24th district.

Other left-wing advocacy groups, such as Swing Left and Indivisible, are helping to recruit volunteers and generate grass-roots support in competitive districts. Tech for Campaigns sees its role as behind-the-scenes amplification. Its work is mostly remote, and volunteers use a Slack channel to coordinate as well as regular calls with campaign officials.

The group has not been universally welcomed by the party. It has irked some officials and media consultants, whose turf it is edging in on. And the group’s volunteers have learned to give advice to candidates gently, to avoid coming off as arrogant know-it-alls.

“We’re very conscious of Silicon Valley having a savior complex,” Ms. Alter said. “We don’t walk in saying, ‘We’re the experts. Let us run your campaign.’”

Chris Hurst, a first-time politician who was elected to Virginia’s House of Delegates last November, worked with Tech for Campaigns beginning several months before Election Day. The group redid his website, tweaked his online ads and coordinated a mass texting campaign to get out the vote.

In the end, Mr. Hurst defeated his Republican opponent by 8 points.

“I know, 100 percent, that they made a difference in our campaign,” said Andrew Whitley, Mr. Hurst’s campaign manager. “I was very surprised these Silicon Valley folks were willing to donate their time like that.”

By the end of the recent conference call, Tech for Campaigns had convinced Ms. Eskamani, the Florida House candidate, to start running ads on her social media accounts. In the coming days, the group said, they would audit her other social media accounts to see which types of posts generated the best engagement and give her tips for increasing their impact.

Ms. Eskamani gushed with excitement.

“I love it,” she said. “Oh my gosh, so much structure. It’s great."