yesIssie LapowskyNone
×

Get access to Protocol

I’ve already subscribed

Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy

Politics

‘We’ve had people panicking:’ Tech startups scramble to take the 2020 race digital

In a matter of weeks everything has changed — except Election Day. Now text messages and virtual phone banking tools are candidates' main line to voters.

Someone looking at Joe Biden on a phone

The text messages, videos and virtual phone banking tools that once supplemented massive canvassing operations and stadium-size rallies are candidates' only line to voters.

Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In early March, Sangeeth Peruri joined his fellow Democratic organizers from across the country for the annual America Votes Summit in Washington, D.C. The event coincided with Joe Biden's Super Tuesday sweep, and at the time, no story could have seemed bigger than the 2020 presidential race. But even then, Peruri says, a few attendees pulled him aside to ask what he thought of "this COVID thing" and how it might change the party's campaigning strategy. Peruri, who runs the digital campaigning platform OutreachCircle, admits he was naive.

"I personally did not realize how serious this was," he said. "It hadn't hit me or most of the people I met with."

In the days and weeks that followed, realization set in. As campaign rallies were canceled, primaries were postponed, and more than 265 million people in 32 states were told not to leave their homes, Peruri's inbox filled up with requests from political operatives. In March, OutreachCircle doubled the number of new client sign-ups from February, despite the fact that February included the most contentious primary races of the season.

"We've had people panicking," Peruri said of the progressive organizations and campaigns his company works with. "They're like, 'We're canceling our paid canvassing plans. We're not going door to door. We need alternatives. What can we do? What can we do? What can we do?'"

Just as it's done to video calling services and telehealth apps, the coronavirus crisis has caused a surge in demand for startups selling tech tools to political campaigns and organizations. In a matter of weeks everything has changed — except Election Day. Volunteers are no longer walking door to door. They aren't standing at the farmers market asking people to sign up to vote. With everyone socially distancing, now the text messages, videos and virtual phone banking tools that once supplemented massive canvassing operations and stadium-size rallies are candidates' only line to voters.

"This shift to digital campaigning is something we've seen gradually over the last decade," said Betsy Hoover, co-founder of the Democratic tech investing firm Higher Ground Labs and former online organizing director for Obama for America. "But now, we basically expedited that shift to happen over a couple weeks in one single moment."

Over the last week, RumbleUp, a peer-to-peer texting app that works with Republican campaigns and organizations like the National Republican Congressional Committee, has seen a 200% increase in sales compared with the week before. CallTime AI, a startup that helps progressive campaigns more efficiently find and contact potential donors, has seen a 30% month-to-month jump in the amount of time campaigns spend using the tool. Team, a texting tool for Democratic campaigns and groups, has gotten more requests to join the platform than it can onboard at once, and a guide the company created to advise campaigns on how to organize online was downloaded more than 1,000 times in two weeks.

None of the leaders of these companies considers themselves lucky. But if there is a shred of luck in all of this, it's that now, unlike in past elections, there are a lot of options for campaigns moving their outreach online. During past cycles, tech tools were far more limited: Mostly they were built in-house by large, well-funded campaigns.

"If this were 2016 or 2004 and a campaign had built a bunch of this tooling in-house and that campaign had not been the nominee, all of that knowledge would be lost," said Alfred Johnson, co-founder and CEO of Mobilize, the platform that every major Democratic presidential campaign used this cycle to organize events.

After the 2016 election, in which President Trump's digital campaign trounced Hillary Clinton's, progressives got serious about investing in political tech. Founders of a new wave of political tech startups wanted to fix what hadn't worked in 2016 and build technology that wouldn't disappear the second a single campaign folded. Those tools were then battle-tested during the 2018 midterms, which launched yet more startups. Now, in a time of nationally mandated social distancing, they are becoming indispensable.

The COVID-19 crisis is also changing the tech, forcing these digital companies to rethink their product roadmaps and prioritize new features for clients. Mobilize, for one, had been working on streamlining the technology campaigns used to check people in to in-person events. Well, now in-person events are canceled, and the platform has seen virtual events go from 25% of new signups to 100%. Johnson said the company has switched to working on features that make it easier for volunteers to throw virtual house parties or connect more seamlessly to Zoom.

Michael Luciani, CEO of the startup that makes the texting app Team, said his company has rushed out a new feature in response to the radically changed political landscape. In the past, campaigns have used Team to let volunteers see which of their contacts are top targets for a given candidate and text them personal messages. The new feature lets volunteers text any group of people the campaign wants to reach — strangers or otherwise — directly from their own phones.

"This allows Team to be a holistic solution for all the types of volunteer work that organizations were doing offline, since there's no supplement anymore," Luciani said.

For the most part, these political tech startups fall along party lines, so there's little to no overlap between the tools Democratic candidates and Republican candidates use. That means there's an imbalance between the sheer quantity of tools available to each party. Right now, when it comes to campaign tech, Republicans are outnumbered, said Thomas Peters, CEO of RumbleUp, the peer-to-peer texting app, and uCampaign, the company that built President Trump's 2016 campaign app. "The party out of power is always the one more motivated to innovate, because they have to," Peters said. "Republicans use platforms really well, but they don't tend to be good at building their own. There's a huge developing and engineering gap."

This isn't such a huge concern for President Trump, who has a massive social media following and whose campaign has mastered Facebook advertising. It matters much more for Republicans running for Congress or local government offices.

Peters said that some Republican campaigns were slower to realize how much their strategies would have to change as a result of the virus. "Campaigns are kind of in a state of shock on the Republican side," he said. "They and their base were less concerned about this and still are. But now that the president is leaning into extending the national quarantine until April 30, it's clear to everyone this is not going anywhere any time soon."

Now, he says RumbleUp has seen a 75% uptick in sign-ups among Republican congressional candidates. The crisis is forcing even his existing clients to use the tool in new ways. Some sitting members of Congress, for instance, have been using the service to send out updates from the Center for Disease Control.

Business may be booming for the executives behind these digital campaign tools, but they're not exactly happy about it. Democratic-focused startups worry about how effectively their party will be able to compete with President Trump given COVID-19 restrictions even with a robust digital toolbox. "I think this is not what any of us want," said Jake DeGroot, co-founder of the progressive canvassing app Reach. "Even for a tech startup, I don't know any organization who would say they prefer a world where their contact has to be entirely remote."

The realities of COVID-19 render not just would-be voters hard to reach, but would-be donors, too. The much-maligned wine caves and private parties where wealthy Democrats have greased candidates' palms until now are being replaced by cold calls in a cratered economy, where an endless list of urgent causes are competing for the same pot of cash.

Several of the companies that spoke with Protocol said that even though their services are in demand, they've also lost clients recently whose funding dried up since the outbreak began.


Get in touch with us: Share information securely with Protocol via encrypted Signal or WhatsApp message, at 415-214-4715 or through our anonymous SecureDrop.


"It's not out of the realm of possibilities that the person you were planning on calling today has literally gone to zero in their income in the last few weeks," said Andrew Blumenfeld, co-founder of CallTime.Ai, a platform that helps campaigns conduct donor research, track donor outreach, and determine what to ask for based on donation history. Blumenfeld believes his company can help by at least providing a tool that campaign staff working remotely can use to manage outreach, even if it's just to check in on potential donors, instead of asking for money outright.

Ultimately, it's unclear whether having access to all of these tools on the left will help Democrats win despite these substantial obstacles. What is clear is that they probably wouldn't stand a chance without them.

People

Expensify CEO David Barrett: ‘Most CEOs are not bad people, they're just cowards’

"Remember that one time when we almost had civil war? What did you do about it?"

Expensify CEO David Barrett has thoughts on what it means for tech CEOs to claim they act apolitically.

Photo: Expensify

The Trump presidency ends tomorrow. It's a political change in which Expensify founder and CEO David Barrett played a brief, but explosive role.

Barrett became famous last fall — or infamous, depending on whom you ask — for sending an email to the fintech startup's clients, urging them to reject Trump and support President-elect Joe Biden.

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Signal at (510)731-8429.

Protocol | Enterprise

Why Oracle and SAP are fighting over startups

Did someone mention a chance to burnish reputations and juice balance sheets?

New cloud-based offerings and favorable contract terms are convincing startups to switch to software from Oracle and SAP earlier in their lives than your might expect.
Jane Seidel

In the hunt for their next big-ticket customers, SAP and Oracle are trying to cast off reputations as stodgy tech providers by making a huge push to provide their software to startups.

Both companies have found themselves in choppy waters recently as potential customers have turned to the cloud, shunning the on-premises solutions SAP and Oracle are known for. That's coupled with a global pandemic that dried up demand for the expensive enterprise-grade software that drives profits at the vendors.

Keep Reading Show less
Joe Williams

Joe Williams is a senior reporter at Protocol covering enterprise software, including industry giants like Salesforce, Microsoft, IBM and Oracle. He previously covered emerging technology for Business Insider. Joe can be reached at JWilliams@Protocol.com. To share information confidentially, he can also be contacted on a non-work device via Signal (+1-309-265-6120) or JPW53189@protonmail.com.

Is this a VC bubble, or just the new normal?

Huge deals, little diligence and hyper-fast follow-on rounds have become commonplace. For now.

Things are looking awful frothy, aren't they?

Photo: Drew Beamer/Unsplash

The VC industry is "frothy," "overheated" or "bonkers," investors say. Whether this is the new normal or unhealthy signs of an overheated market depends on your point of view — and how well your portfolio is doing.

There are signs that VC has changed all around. In recent months, deal sizes and valuations have spiked in hot deals; due diligence on startups has evaporated as investors compete to get into hot deals first; venture firms are investing much more than they normally do; there are hyper-fast follow-on rounds; and more non-traditional investors are backing early-stage startups.

Keep Reading Show less
Tomio Geron

Tomio Geron ( @tomiogeron) is a San Francisco-based reporter covering fintech. He was previously a reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal, covering venture capital and startups. Before that, he worked as a staff writer at Forbes, covering social media and venture capital, and also edited the Midas List of top tech investors. He has also worked at newspapers covering crime, courts, health and other topics. He can be reached at tgeron@protocol.com or tgeron@protonmail.com.

COVID-19 bruised TripActions’ business. It chose to innovate.

If nobody's booking business flights through your startup, why not help people pay for their corporate takeout instead?

TripActions had to confront a world with far less travel.

Photo: TripActions

TripActions was a fast-growing startup that helped clients manage their business travel when the pandemic hit early last year. Now, almost a year later, it's also helping businesses with their work-from-home expenses.

Chief financial officer Thomas Tuchscherer compared what happened last spring to being in a speeding car that was forced off a cliff — a terrifying experience shared by most travel industry companies hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis.

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Signal at (510)731-8429.

Politics

In 2020, COVID-19 derailed the privacy debate

From biometric monitoring to unregulated contact tracing, the crisis opened up new privacy vulnerabilities that regulators did little to address.

Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, says the COVID-19 pandemic has become a "cash grab" for surveillance tech companies.

Photo: Lianhao Qu/Unsplash

As the coronavirus began its inexorable spread across the United States last spring, Adam Schwartz, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, worried the virus would bring with it another scourge: mass surveillance.

"A lot of really bad ideas were being advanced here in the U.S. and a lot of really bad ideas were being actually implemented in foreign countries," Schwartz said.

Keep Reading Show less
Issie Lapowsky
Issie Lapowsky (@issielapowsky) is a senior reporter at Protocol, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University’s Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing. Email Issie.
Latest Stories