‘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.
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.
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"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.
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"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.