Politics

Alloy promised Democrats a data edge over Trump. The DNC didn’t buy it. Now what?

Alloy was one of the most-hyped data firms of the 2020 election, and Reid Hoffman and Todd Park backed it with $35 million. But Democrats are still at war over what value it adds to the party.

Reid Hoffman, Todd Park, Mikey Dickerson, Haley Van Dyck

Reid Hoffman (top left) and Todd Park (top right) funded Alloy, which is led by Mikey Dickerson (bottom left) and Haley Van Dyck (bottom right).

Image: Getty Images North America / Bloomberg / Marco Verch / nrkbeta / Dwight Burdette / Protocol

Over the summer, the Democratic National Committee asked Alloy, a new vendor of political data, for a sample of its work. It was a huge moment: Landing a contract with the committee would be a breakthrough for the company.

Alloy had made a noisy start when it launched in 2018, a nonprofit backed by $35 million in funding from LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and former United States Chief Technology Officer Todd Park. It was an eye-popping sum rarely seen in the political tech world, and Alloy had used some of it to build a new voter file, with a special focus on contact information for unregistered voters.

In July, the company shared a chunk of that data with the DNC. About a month later, the DNC came back with its answer: No deal.

According to a source familiar with the negotiations, the party had tested Alloy's sample and found a series of potential errors. Some supposedly unregistered voters in Alloy's database were marked in DNC records as registered voters who had simply moved or were dead. Others, the DNC had identified as likely Republicans and even Trump voters, not the types of targets the party wanted Democratic candidates flooding with texts and phone calls.

A DNC official confirmed that the committee has not purchased Alloy's data, but declined to elaborate on why. Luis Miranda, Alloy's current director of communications and former head of communications for the DNC, wouldn't discuss the details of Alloy's conversations with the party, but said, "Generally speaking, we're proud of the quality of the data we've acquired and delivered to our partners, and excited about the success they've had in their voter registration efforts."

Alloy launched with a grandiose vision of expanding Democrats' access to data to better compete with what the Republicans had built before 2016. Its founders, Haley Van Dyck and Mikey Dickerson, initially set out to build a data exchange, a central repository that would allow Democratic campaigns and outside groups to swap intel on voters, without violating campaign finance laws.

The backlash started almost immediately: State parties resisted the push to give up their data, and Democratic techies grumbled about more worthy ways they would use $35 million. Within a few months, Alloy shelved its early plans and pivoted to filling data gaps on the country's millions of unregistered voters, and it's had some luck. During 2020, a year in which voter registration is happening largely online, dozens of clients including grassroots groups like Mi Familia Vota and state parties like the Florida Democrats have signed up to access Alloy's database and voter registration verification tool.

But as the DNC's assessment shows, questions remain about how successful Alloy's pivot has been and how vital the information it has provided really is.

Interviews with more than a dozen people from all corners of the progressive tech space suggest that Democrats are still very much at war over what value Alloy brings to the party. Some say its tools, which are far more affordable than the competition's, have expanded access to data among progressive groups and that truly transformative tech takes more than a year to develop. Others — often off the record for fear of offending Hoffman — argue that Alloy has squandered more time and money than anyone else in the space has ever gotten, only to build yet another voter file that's just as error-prone, if not more so, than the rest.

"We've heard all of this before," Van Dyck recently said of some of the criticism. Alloy was, to use political parlance, a challenger entering a crowded field of incumbents, all interested in protecting their turf. It stands to reason that not everyone would be eager to see it succeed or tolerate its growing pains. Van Dyck argues that Alloy is still doing what it set out to do: "improv[ing] the speed and quality of progressive data while lowering the barriers to access," a concept she says is "alive and well" in Alloy's products.

"It's too bad that during such an important election with so much at stake, some on the left have time to be disparaging of each other rather than focusing on what matters: getting Donald Trump out of office," Van Dyck said.

She and Dickerson still have big ambitions for using digital tools to expand and better understand the electorate. Now, the question is whether they'll have the chance to see those ambitions through.

'Everything got started way too late.'

If Van Dyck and Dickerson had their way, Alloy would have launched immediately after election night in 2016. At the time, the Trump campaign's former digital director, Brad Parscale, was clucking about the company's data operation, and the dominant narrative held that Democrats had lost their technological edge. Before Alloy, Van Dyck and Dickerson had founded the United States Digital Service, a tech startup of sorts inside the White House and had built reputations as no-nonsense pragmatists about government tech. "Government needs to get its shit together and catch up," Van Dyck said during her 2016 TED Talk to a round of applause. "Just saying."

But when they began pitching their idea for a data exchange after the 2016 election, political donors who had just spent millions on a race that ended in brutal defeat weren't much in the giving mood. "We can confidently say everything got started way too late," Van Dyck said when we first spoke back in March.

"It took years to convince anybody to put any money into it," Dickerson added.

It wasn't just that donors were taking time to nurse their wounds. What Dickerson and Van Dyck were proposing was also really hard to pull off. For a data exchange to work, state parties, campaigns and outside groups — who all have an interest in keeping their contact lists proprietary for both financial and privacy reasons — have to be convinced to share.

"It's a thing everybody says yes to, because you can hardly say no to the elevator pitch," Dickerson said. "But then the rubber hits the road, and it gets ugly really fast when you say, 'I'm ready to do that exchange you talked about. When would you like to send over your list of names and email addresses?' We found there's tremendous entrenched resistance to that idea."

Image: Element Five Digital / Protocol

Adding to their challenges: Van Dyck and Dickerson were perceived as outsiders by career campaign strategists. Landing Hoffman and Park as backers, as they eventually did, only cemented their reputation as technocratic interlopers, despite the fact they'd both worked in the White House.

Around the same time, a DNC-sanctioned organization called simply the Democratic Data Exchange launched. Not only was it chasing the same idea, but it was led by people with widespread networks in campaigns, including Jen O'Malley Dillon, Joe Biden's campaign manager and former executive director of the DNC, followed by Lindsey Schuh Cortes, former chief technology officer of the DNC and DDEx's current head. Schuh Cortes in particular had played an instrumental role in figuring out how a data exchange could work in a way that campaigns and state parties would agree with. "State parties consider data, and we do as well, one of the main assets of the party," Schuh Cortes told me last year when I interviewed her for another story while she was still at the DNC. "Moving that outside the party made them very anxious."

But DDEx was able to overcome those anxieties. Today, it's up and running in 40 states with 1.5 billion records in its database. "DDEx nailed the relationship aspect of it," said Raffi Krikorian, Schuh Cortes' predecessor at the DNC, who himself came to politics by way of Uber and Twitter. DDEx's momentum throughout 2019 — coupled with the resistance Alloy faced — was enough to prompt Van Dyck and Dickerson to change course.

"To the extent our plans have mutated, it's because it's where the demand seemed to be and where people were willing to work," Dickerson said. "It seemed like it was asking too much of groups that aren't ready to do it and don't have their interests aligned as much as it might look like from an outside view."

'Where the hell are they?'

By mid-2019, Alloy had a team of technologists and a big pot of money. But it now needed a new problem to solve. "We were building and selling and figuring out product-market fit all at the same time," Van Dyck said.

That year, Alloy's product designers, most of whom were new to campaigns, went on a listening tour, meeting with grassroots organizations to discuss the gaps they saw in Democratic tech — a process Alloy's leaders believed would give them the best chance of pinpointing a piece of the data ecosystem that was missing.

To some career campaign strategists, the company's path to finding itself in the heat of a presidential primary, a year out from a hugely contentious election, looked like frivolous spending while the clock was ticking. "How much money got spent on big salaries and on marketing operations to hype these things up? And where the hell are they?" one Democratic consultant said recently of Alloy.

Another Democratic tech strategist recalled the Alloy team handing out YubiKeys at a meeting of state parties in 2019. To Alloy, the YubiKeys were fig leaves, an offering of collaboration. Not everyone saw it that way. "It was like OK cool, but what are you spending $35 million on?" the strategist said. "That's what everyone wanted to know."

How much money got spent on big salaries and on marketing operations to hype these things up?
— A Democratic consultant

Betsy Hoover, co-founder of the progressive venture firm Higher Ground Labs, which also has funding from Hoffman, is one of the rare Democratic techies willing to talk on the record about Alloy. She put it more diplomatically. "They started with such a bang, and it has taken a long time to realize a lot of progress there," she said. "Some of that was things they could control, and some of that was things they couldn't."

Whatever the perception of the company was from the outside, inside, all of those meetings were pointing Alloy in a new direction: toward the millions of unregistered voters who the Democratic Party would very much like to win over. Even some of Alloy's early skeptics were excited by the prospect of putting $35 million behind that problem. Figuring out where unregistered voters might live and what they might believe in is a perennially difficult task for political campaigns. While registered voters are stored at the state level, unregistered voters are hidden away in a messy jumble of credit card application data and mobile phone records. Matching all of those records to form a picture of a real person, where they live and how to contact them, is a heavy lift.

"We heard from early research from our partners across the ecosystem that unregistered data was extraordinarily hard to get their arms around," Van Dyck said. That, and for the smallest grassroots groups, purchasing any of the party's data from leading vendors was prohibitively expensive. Van Dyck and Dickerson headed into 2020 with a plan to fill both of those gaps — and just months to pull it off.

A tricky bargain

The first prong of the plan was Verify, an API Alloy built to help voter registration groups check people's registration status and ensure the people they're signing up make it onto the voter rolls. That's a lot more difficult than it sounds: There's no central keeper of voter registration data in America. It's stored state by state, and it isn't static. Refreshing it requires getting lists of newly registered voters directly from secretaries of state, usually via mailed CDs. Whoever's on the receiving end of that CD — in this case, Alloy — then manually uploads the data into their central repository.

"Even that's the easy part," Dickerson said. "The harder thing is they change the structure of the data all the time." Verify wouldn't be the only such product on the market, but Van Dyck and Dickerson figured if they could refresh voter rolls faster than the competition, and sell their service more cheaply, that would be a selling point to voter registration organizations, who don't have data science teams of their own.

It would also give them a bird's-eye view into state-level trends: What groups are registering and what groups are getting purged? They decided to channel that informational exhaust into another product, a free monthly email newsletter called Protect, which shares insights on voter registration in seven battleground states.

But by far Alloy's biggest bet — and the one that's earned the company the most flak — is its voter database, Source. It combines all the data Alloy collects for Verify along with commercial data Alloy purchases and uses to build profiles on unregistered voters. Alloy offers it in a low-tech format, distributing frequently refreshed .csv files to clients who might not know their way around an API. Source contains some combination of addresses, emails, phone numbers, demographics, party affiliation and registration status on 193 million registered voters and 121 million unregistered voters across every state, a figure Alloy says makes it the largest repository of unregistered voter data on the market. It's also experimenting with matching people's digital identifiers, like their social media accounts, to their voter file, but that's a longer-term project.

There is an element of exchange to it, too, and that's where things get messy. Alloy asks customers to validate its data by giving them back information on, say, which phone numbers worked and which didn't. Those who agree to that deal get access to Source for as little as $35 a month. Those who don't agree have to pay more. "The point being: The more people who use our file, the smarter it becomes," Van Dyck said.

Alloy's going to give you this data. You're gonna do your work, and Alloy's going to have the ability to resell your work to anyone they care about.
— A longtime Democratic strategist

That idea sounds simple, maybe even logical. It's a widely held view in Democratic politics that the voter file is riddled with errors. In a 2017 interview, Hillary Clinton called the party's data "mediocre to poor, nonexistent, wrong." As someone whose phone number apparently got linked to a Pennsylvania Democrat named Vivian somewhere along the line, I can attest to its sometimes spotty accuracy. Alloy's goal is to get quicker insight into what it's getting right and wrong.

For some organizations, that's hugely valuable, said Jeremy Smith, CEO of Civitech, a Higher Ground Labs-backed startup that builds tools to help organizations register people and vote by mail. "Buying any commercial data is a suspect process. Alloy has to struggle with that, too," Smith said. "They're approaching it from a standpoint of working with people to see what's wrong and make improvements. And they're making it so cheap."

But in the early days, sources say, the requirement to validate data was a major turnoff to some voter registration organizations, many of whom serve underrepresented groups and were repelled by the idea of giving sensitive information on their communities away to an organization with ties to Silicon Valley.

"That's where the wheels came off the wagon for any of the big shops," said one longtime Democratic strategist familiar with the conversations. "It was basically: Alloy's going to give you this data. You're gonna do your work, and Alloy's going to have the ability to resell your work to anyone they care about."

When I asked Van Dyck whether Alloy's gotten any pushback on this arrangement, she responded by saying she's "really excited about the adoption of the product." When I asked again, Miranda, head of communications, cut in and emphasized that Alloy is a nonprofit. "We're not ever going to use any of this data for commercial purposes," he said.

'I'd much rather have $35 million'

Alloy still hasn't gotten any of the DNC's business. Nor has it landed a contract with the Biden campaign, a fact its nonbelievers point to as evidence that they were right all along.

But some organizations say what Alloy has built has been genuinely useful. The COVID-19 pandemic forced political groups that typically live in the analog world of door-knocking to embrace more digital strategies, which has helped Alloy carve out a niche with smaller organizations that were previously priced out of Democratic data. Between June and early October, 14 million voters' registration status had been run through Verify, and, Van Dyck assured me, that number changes by the minute. "We've seen the kind of adoption most people dream of," she said.

Alloy has also partnered with a slew of other startups to provide the data back end for their own tech tools. OpenField.ai, another Higher Ground Labs company, used Alloy's data to power their virtual phone banking and canvassing app. "From the start, we have had a productive partnership with Alloy," OpenField's CEO Ari Trujillo-Wesler said in a statement. "They have provided updated, reliable, and accurate data to our customers and their Verify tool has become a key element of OpenField."

In some cases, Alloy's been well-served by working with organizations that couldn't care less about the Democratic data wars. Anna Bloom, a user-experience designer for Airbnb, helped start Vote Like a Woman late last year in hopes of increasing female voter participation on the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment. The group uses Alloy's data to find unregistered women in battleground states and target them with ads on social media. So far, Bloom said Vote Like a Woman has targeted a little over 1 million unregistered women using Alloy data, and while they can't say for sure what role the ads played, Bloom said nearly 400,000 of those women have gone on to register. "It didn't occur to us that this data would be available to a scrappy startup campaign like ours," Bloom said.

Of course, the smaller an organization is, the harder it becomes for it to benchmark the accuracy of Alloy's data against other sources like the DNC was able to. One source called this the difference between "the haves and have-nots."

Image: Dwight Burdette / Protocol

For Nick Catalano, director of technology at the voter registration group VoteAmerica, the main selling point was the price. (It didn't hurt, of course, that VoteAmerica's CEO, Debra Cleaver, had prior ties to Hoffman, who funded her earlier startup Vote.org.) VoteAmerica already had a contract with another vendor, TargetSmart, but Catalano said Verify was cheap enough to give it a try as well. VoteAmerica still relies heavily on TargetSmart for proactive voter outreach, but when people visit VoteAmerica's website specifically to check their registration status, its system pings both companies to see which file has the answer first. "Our other vendor is becoming a real problem in keeping up their dataset in a way that Alloy just isn't," Catalano said of the voter registration checker. "Our team is sending thousands of lookups a day to Alloy at this point, because they're just so much fresher than our other vendors." TargetSmart declined to comment.

Catalano, who has worked in Democratic technology for most of the last decade, told me Alloy is "probably the best and most reliable vendor I've worked with this cycle." And yet, even he expressed serious doubts about whether what Alloy has built is worth the $35 million price tag. "I have three vendors I can go to right now to get political data. Alloy's another place I can go to get that data a little faster than everybody else," Catalano said. "I'm not going to say no to somebody helping me incrementally with an API, but I'd much rather have $35 million."

Worth the price?

In any other industry, spending $35 million to build a product that has dozens of customers and clients who claim it's faster and more affordable than the competition might be considered a win.

Politics is not like any other industry. It's time-sensitive with endless competing needs and, no matter how many billions of dollars donors give out, there's never enough money to go around. So, almost every critique about Alloy leads to a question about how Democrats might have better spent this relative fortune. Some in the party even remain skeptical that the Republicans' much-touted data operation had anything to do with their 2016 win and will note that the most predictive data about how someone will vote in the future is how they have voted in the past.

Hoffman, who declined to comment for this story, has plowed more than $7 million into Democratic campaigns and causes this cycle, but his funding of Alloy dwarfed that. Now that the election is around the corner, the question goes, what does he have to show for it? "I think a lot of the reporting around investing in innovation in politics focuses on the inputs: Who is giving how much money where? But there's not a lot of clarity on the outputs," said Michael Slaby, former chief innovation officer for President Obama's 2012 campaign.

Four years ago, Slaby found himself in much the same position that Van Dyck and Dickerson do today. He was leading The Groundwork, a startup backed by former Google CEO and Democratic megadonor Eric Schmidt that was building digital infrastructure for progressive causes. Unlike Alloy, The Groundwork did manage to land a contract with the Clinton campaign, but after Election Day, Slaby said the company had run through its funding, and Schmidt wasn't willing to be The Groundwork's only backer anymore; attempts to find that funding elsewhere came up short. "We failed to make the case," Slaby said. The Groundwork shut down by the end of 2018.

There's going to be a lot of reshuffling after the election and a lot of unknowns for what will happen for the whole ecosystem.
— Haley Van Dyck

The cyclical nature of political funding makes it a challenge for even the most essential technology to last. Companies get one pressure cooker of a year to prove their worth and make all their money in hopes that it floats them until the next deluge of cash comes in four years later.

That's the wrong way to develop ambitious technology, said Krikorian, the DNC's former CTO. "Let's assume for half a second we win on Nov. 3," Krikorian said. "On Nov. 4, we need to start funding a bunch of big swing tech that could make its way into campaigns and the state parties and the DNC."

It's anyone's guess whether Alloy will continue to pull in more cash. Higher Ground Labs' Hoover said she thinks Alloy is working on an important problem, but "nobody knows exactly how the big funders from this cycle are going to respond post-election. A lot of those funders are waiting for the results."

When I asked Van Dyck what was in store for Alloy after Election Day, she said the company still had good relationships with its backers, but admitted that a lot is uncertain. "There's going to be a lot of reshuffling after the election and a lot of unknowns for what will happen for the whole ecosystem," Van Dyck said.

Whoever wins, Van Dyck and Dickerson will, like Slaby, undoubtedly have to make their case to both potential clients and future backers alike. When they do, they won't be able tout their work for the DNC or the party's nominee. Instead, they'll point to the grassroots groups they helped and argue that in 2020, they broadened the tent of voter participation in America, and that given more time, they could do even more. And they'll hope that's enough.

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