Outgunned by Trump, Democrats Call Tech Help Desk for 2020 Race

Outgunned by Trump, Democrats Call Tech Help Desk for 2020 Race

July 2, 2019

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Donald Trump and the Republican Party won the White House in 2016 thanks in part to beating the Democrats where they had been dominant: harnessing the internet. Now, Democrats are trying to play catch up.

Liberal-minded donors, technology executives and political consulting firms are investing in new digital tools to help Democratic candidates raise money, get their message out and mobilize voters. They’re taking a page from ActBlue, the fundraising platform that has raked in $3.5 billion for Democratic candidates since 2004 and on Monday said its single-biggest day in contributor numbers came on June 30.

Leading the way is Higher Ground Labs, a venture-capital firm that has invested $15 million in 36 start-ups that are developing a permanent digital infrastructure for Democratic campaigns up and down the ballot. Backed by Silicon Valley investors such as Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn and a big Democratic donor, and boasting an advisory board that includes entrepreneurs and former Obama administration officials, Higher Ground aims to help progressives win elections, according to its website, which also says the firm is “in the business of saving democracy.”

Trump’s re-elect is flooding battleground states with digital content,” said Teddy Gold, vice president of Higher Ground. “To date, they’ve outspent the entire field.”

Democrats found themselves outgunned in 2016 by Brad Parscale, then Trump’s digital director and now his campaign manager. He flooded Facebook with the campaign’s messages, micro-targeting people who hadn’t been to the polls in years and outspending Clinton’s campaign 4-to-1 in the final two months of the election. Trump also used his Twitter account to change the way political candidates communicate with voters and raised $250 million online compared with Clinton’s $230 million.

It was a turnabout from 2008 and 2012, when Barack Obama’s tech operatives, including alumni from Vermont Governor Howard Dean’s innovative 2004 campaign, successfully used the web to raise more than $500 million, organize volunteers and broadcast his message. In 2012, Obama pioneered the use of Facebook. A campaign app that had over 1 million users matched friends’ networks to data in the campaign’s voter file, assisting turnout efforts.

Digital failures can haunt campaigns: A bad get-out-the-vote app that malfunctioned on Election Day may have cost Mitt Romney tens of thousands of votes in 2012. Hillary Clinton and her campaign staff have said subpar technology from the Democratic National Committee, including the tools it used to mine data for turnout operations, contributed to her 2016 loss.

A smart digital strategy “could be the difference between winning or losing,” said Marie Danzig, who served as deputy digital director for Obama in 2012 and is now a manager at Blue State Digital, a strategy and technology firm that serves corporations, nonprofits and progressive candidates and causes. 

Higher Ground Labs is financing companies that are creating campaign tools to combat fake news on Facebook and other social-media sites, gauge voter sentiment other than by conducting polls on telephone landlines, create compelling content at low cost and message a wide range of voters.

More than 3,000 campaigns have used these tools, the incubator firm says. Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and Senators Kamala Harris of California, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York are all using MobilizeAmerica Inc.’s website and app that allows volunteers to register for rallies, arrange meet-ups and organize shifts for door-to-door canvassing. The New York company says it worked with 33 of the 38 Democratic House candidates who won Republican-held seats in 2018.

Harris spent the most on the service in the first quarter of 2019, $10,000 according to Federal Election Commission records, while Gillibrand spent $2,650. The DNC paid more than $51,000 to MobilizeAmerica in the same period. 

New tools for the 2020 race include a platform for gauging voter sentiment via text messages made by New York-based Survey 160 Inc., and more sophisticated voter analytics from PredictWise LLC. And to battle misinformation, whether from Republican opponents, dark money groups or foreign bots, Democratic campaigns can turn to New York-based Torch.tv Inc., which makes a “listening dashboard” to track social-media attacks.

Sometimes these groups are complementary. Survey 160, for example, teamed up with Gradient Metrics, an analytics and marketing firm, to conduct live interviews via text messages with donors who used ActBlue in 2016. The first-of-its-kind survey, completed June 21, found that Sanders was the top choice of just 42% of his 2016 donor base, but more important, it gave insights into how activist donors evaluate the current crop of candidates.

Unlike traditional pollsters and political consultants who sign up with a single campaign, the start-ups offer their services to all comers, as long as they’re Democratic candidates or progressive causes. They’re following the model of ActBlue, the Somerville, Massachusetts-based nonprofit whose fundraising platform offers mobile apps and web tools to make it easier for donors to give.
 

ActBlue said it took in 390,000 contributions  —  the most in a single day for the platform — on June 30 alone. In dollar terms, the $12 million raised was the second-biggest one-day haul in ActBlue’s history. All the major presidential candidates are using the platform to raise money online, a shift from 2016 when Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders was the first presidential candidate to make ActBlue his primary fundraising method. Sanders took in more than $218 million through ActBlue, helping make the app the standard option for campaigns.   

Some $1.3 billion flowed through ActBlue to federal candidates in the 2018 midterm election cycle, when small-dollar donors — those giving $200 or less — flooded Democratic congressional campaigns, which raised $497 million more than Republicans did.

Trump and the RNC, taking note of ActBlue’s success, last week launched WinRed, a GOP fundraising platform designed to draw in more money from online donors giving small amounts, including for down-ballot candidates. But in other areas, Republicans are ahead of Democrats. 

The GOP has its own app makers, including Political Social Media LLC, which makes Trump’s America First app and a generic uCampaign offering that conservative groups can use to organize. 

Trump’s campaign is also outspending the Democrats on digital ads. The president is particularly effective at simplifying his message and making it serve multiple purposes, said Andrew Bleeker, president of Bully Pulpit Interactive, a Democratic communications agency. Trump’s campaign, for example, uses slogans such as “Build the Wall” for online messaging, engagement and fundraising.

Since April 27, two days after Vice President Joe Biden officially joined the race, Trump has outspent him $4 million to $1.7 million on digital ads run on Facebook and through Alphabet Inc.’s Google, according to Bully Pulpit’s campaign tracker, a database of online ad spending by campaigns. Bully Pulpit’s data, which includes the demographics being targeted, allows candidates to measure their efforts against Trump’s.

Former Bully Pulpit staffers have signed on to some of the campaigns’ digital teams, as have top talent from other firms. Joe Rospars, who helped create Dean’s web strategy, was digital director for Obama’s two campaigns and co-founded Blue State Digital, is now advising Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s campaign.

The large number of candidates — there are 24 now — drawing in digital talent might have one positive for Democrats: There will be a lot of room for experimentation and innovation, even by losing campaigns. “There’s going to be a lot of good stuff that is done by people that don’t make it,” Bully Pulpit’s Bleeker said.

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