The Midterms Will Test a Blue Wave of Activist Apps

Startups like Swing Left and Crush the Midterms wanted to maximize volunteers’ impact. On Tuesday, they find out if it worked.

One upshot for Democrats after their devastating loss on election night 2016 was the birth of The Resistance. The last two years have seen millions of newly born activists with pun-covered signs take to the streets for the Women’s March. Thousands of demonstrators have descended on town hall meetings to make their voices heard. Hundreds of women have been inspired to run for office.

But the election didn’t just activate progressive protesters and candidates. It also created a blue wave of startups focused on helping volunteers get progressives into office. Rather than building technology for campaigns and the party, these new companies created tools that make volunteering both maximally efficient and maximally convenient. Swing Left helps voters find the swing district closest to them and suggests actions they can take based on the impact they’ll have. Flippable crunched the numbers on thousands of state legislative races so it could tell would-be donors and volunteers which tight races needed them most. Crush the Midterms helps people create their own volunteering plan based on where they live, what they like to do, and how much spare time they have.

Think of it as the Uber-ization of grassroots politics. Taking a page from Silicon Valley’s playbook, these companies make complex algorithmic recommendations based on an array of data points, all packaged into a user-friendly design. In a lot of ways, it appears to be working: Swing Left’s volunteers knocked on two million doors across the country last weekend alone.

“We’re seeing the Democratic party be much more decentralized than it’s ever been in the past,” says Josh Hendler, co-founder of Crush the Midterms and a former chief technology officer at the Democratic National Committee. “We’ve seen this crazy shift to big organizing—a shift toward volunteers doing much more of the work.”

In past cycles, companies mostly focused on campaign and party infrastructure, building customer relationship management or email targeting tools that help campaigns more efficiently reach voters, volunteers, and donors. But the post-2016 batch of startups flips that model.

“All of these efforts are trying to move in the direction of building activism into people’s daily lives,” says Ethan Todras-Whitehill, executive director of Swing Left. “If we’re successful with all of that, I think the technology really has the potential to increase overall civic participation.”

Like so many of the Resistance entrepreneurs, Todras-Whitehill, a freelance writer, co-founded Swing Left after the 2016 election out of a desire to do something to help Democrats win back power in 2018. For him, that meant finding ways that Democrats like himself living in safely blue districts could have an impact in nearby swing districts. Before any candidates had even been nominated, Swing Left used polls and race rating systems like Cook Political Report to create a set of district-specific funds for people to donate to. They further pinpointed a group of races where the money would make the biggest dent, including districts in inexpensive media markets.

“All of these efforts are trying to move in the direction of building activism into people’s daily lives.”

Ethan Todras-Whitehill, Swing Left

As election day approached and focus shifted from fundraising to getting out the vote, Swing Left launched a new page called Take Action. It suggests actions users can take based on where they live and orders them based on how much of an impact they can have. That’s more complicated than it sounds, says Jonathan Strauss, Swing Left’s head of product. The Take Action tool incorporates polling data from 84 races, intelligence from the campaigns themselves, and event RSVP data to ensure it isn’t overcrowding certain events and leaving others empty. Take Action also measures how far away a person is from any one of those actions. Strauss’s team, which is made up of former engineers from YouTube and Facebook, built a machine learning model to analyze at what distance signups begin to decrease.

While all of that is happening behind the scenes, users only see a clean interface, recommending a handful of options, ordered by impact. When I entered my zip code in Brooklyn, Take Action’s top recommendation was a canvassing event in Westfield, New Jersey, complete with a link to sign up for a shift. If that option didn’t work, I could sign up to phone bank from home instead. Since launching the tool, Swing Left says it’s seen a more than 60 percent increase in people committing to take an action.

“What we’ve done is focus a ton of time and effort into taking on that complexity,” says Strauss. When you remove those barriers from any product, he says, users are more willing to engage with it.

Crush the Midterms faced similar technical challenges when its creators set out to build a tool that would let people create a personalized game plan for the midterms. It asks people seven questions about their registration status, where they live, where they grew up, how much time they’re willing to give, and what their strengths are. The tool scrapes data from race rating systems to determine which races are closest and integrates with other third-party apps, including Swing Left, to recommend volunteering opportunities. It also heavily weights geography to ensure people aren’t turned off by actions that are too far away.

It’s the inverse of how a campaign might ordinarily go about this process by first collecting as many email addresses as possible and then bombarding those people with emails urging them to take some action. “We really wanted to make this a service for activists. We didn’t want it to just be about getting people’s emails,” Hendler says.

Just because these companies are building for volunteers doesn’t mean they’re circumventing the party structure altogether. A startup called Tuesday Company is working on 70 races in collaboration with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Its app, Team, lets volunteers see which of their friends a campaign wants to reach. Users upload their contact lists, and campaigns compare those lists to their own voter files. Then, users can send personalized text messages to the people the campaign selects. By encouraging volunteers to text people they actually know, Team’s creators believe they can more effectively cut through the noise before election day. (That includes the noise generated by all the other peer-to-peer texting apps that have exploded in popularity this cycle—some with serious privacy and security issues).

The idea for Team was born out of CEO Michael Luciani and COO Shola Farber’s own experience working for the Hillary Clinton campaign in Michigan. Volunteers would come into their office and ask about different apps they wanted to use to get out the vote. Luciani says he would inevitably shoot them down, because there was no way to integrate those apps into the campaign’s existing structure. With Team, all of the data volunteer texters collect goes back into the Democratic voter file.

Farber says having a robust network of volunteers is a strategic advantage for Democrats. It’s one reason that fewer of these grassroots tools exist on the right, with the exception of a company called uCampaign, which has built voter-facing apps for President Trump’s 2016 campaign and the Republican National Committee. “Democrats spend an enormous amount of time and money recruiting volunteers because we have them, frankly,” says Farber.

All this decentralization could also lead to chaos if not managed properly. Hendler acknowledges, for instance, that the party has a lot of work to do to unify and clean up all the data that these Resistance startups have collected over the last two years. Ideally that data would go to the Democratic party, although privacy and competitive concerns could complicate things. But if this is in fact a wave election for Democrats, it’s crucial to the party’s longterm future to capture insights about all the new people who turned out to support it.

Of course, that’s still a big if. There’s no guarantee that all this activism is going to make a meaningful difference for Democrats on Tuesday. And even if Democrats do win back the House of Representatives or flip a few state legislatures from red to blue, it doesn’t mean all of these nifty new tech tools should automatically get the credit. Determining their impact requires a much deeper analysis. After the election, the creators of Team, for one, plan to compare the campaigns where volunteers were most active on the platform to the campaigns where they weren’t to see who performed best.

“If those people do better, or failed less than everyone else, that’s really meaningful for us,” says Luciani, Tuesday Company’s CEO.

And if they don’t? “Then I guess we should just pack up and go home.”


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