Sam Altman, Chris Kelly and others are involved
A group of well-wired tech engineers is trying to bring a Silicon Valley sensibility to hundreds of hardscrabble Democratic campaigns around the country next year — and they’re tapping the likes of Sam Altman, Chris Kelly and Chamath Palihapitiya for help.*
The organization is called Tech for Campaigns — and the effort, profiled by Recode earlier this May, seeks to arm digitally deprived state and federal office-seekers with tools to connect with voters in the social media age. That comes in the form of placing volunteers, about 3,000 and counting, with candidates who need help on data analytics, paid ads, social strategy on Facebook and more.
Already, Tech for Campaigns has aided an aspiring Democratic member of Congress in Montana, and it’s deployed its volunteers to support dozens of office-seekers in Virginia. Ultimately, in Montana, Rob Quist, lost his special-election race. And in Virginia, the state is set to head to the ballot box next month to determine the composition of their local legislature and governor’s mansion.
But Tech for Campaigns believes the Democratic Party’s tech needs remain legion — and they’re aiming to grow beyond their current slate of 50 races to 500 in 2018. To do it, they’re relying on some star-studded tech names for fundraising.
Their initial play is a crowdfunding campaign, an effort to raise $ 250,000 that grants donors access to live-streamed fireside chats with important figures in progressive and Democratic politics. Joining the effort are Altman, the leader of Y Combinator; Kelly, the former general counsel of Facebook; and Palihapitiya, the founder of Social Capital.
Mike McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia; Nathan Blecharczyk, the co-founder of Airbnb; and Maggie Hassan, the Democratic senator from New Hampshire, also are set to appear.
None of those deep-pocketed tech luminaries on its list have donated to the group — at least, for now. Instead, the goal at the moment is to grow support for the organization’s work beyond Silicon Valley and into states like North Carolina and Michigan, just in time for next year’s elections, according to Jessica Alter, the co-founder of Tech for Campaigns.
“We want Tech for Campaigns to be the digital arm for the left,” Alter said in an interview. “We realize there’s just an immense hole between what is happening in best-in-class tech and what is happening in politics, and that is especially true at the state level.”
To that end, Alter estimates “upwards of 70 percent” of its new goal — 500 campaigns next year — will be focused on state legislative races. Those battles may not be the stuff of sexy cable news segments or flashy attack ads. Oftentimes, they’re neglected by local voters in years when there isn’t a presidential candidate like Donald Trump on the ballot.
But some of these local state elections are critical: They help draw the invisible lines that determine federal congressional districts. And at the moment, 32 states’ legislatures are run by Republicans.
That’s why the Democrat-leaning Tech for Campaigns has scores of volunteers already on the ground in Virginia, a state where its House of Delegates might be up for grabs for the party in a matter of weeks — and one where its redistricting plan is the subject of current court disputes.
From here, Alter and the TFC team have sought to analyze other states that might be most likely to flip to Democratic control. That’s why they expect to set their sights on North Carolina and Michigan, two swing states even in normal years — when Trump isn’t influencing the ballot. With it, they’re refining what essentially amounts to a digital toolkit for campaigns — guides for how to study voters, reach them with targeted ads, understand the cosmology of Facebook and text voters to get to the polls.
It sounds like the stuff of simple, everyday marketing, but Alter — and many Democrats even outside of her orbit — agree that their own party is still ill-equipped to take advantage of the tools at their disposal.
“In the future we think that every campaign should have access to a digital team,” she said. “It’s 2017. American adults spend almost 6 hours a day online. And so, the idea you would have a field team and not a digital team is sort of crazy to me.”
*Recode exectuive editor Kara Swisher is participating in one of the private fireside chats as a moderator. She has not donated cash to Tech for Campaigns.