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Silicon Valley Wants To Dust Off The Democratic Establishment

Jessica Alter is a co-founder of Tech For Campaigns. The San Francisco-based startup focuses on state races and is currently working on campaigns in Virginia.
Aarti Shahani
Jessica Alter is a co-founder of Tech For Campaigns. The San Francisco-based startup focuses on state races and is currently working on campaigns in Virginia.

A massive shift happened, quietly, during the Obama years: Democrats got comfortable and gave up their lead in digital campaigning, Democratic and Republican political operatives say.

Republicans, meanwhile, itched to regain power and invested heavily in using the Internet to build political support.

Now, liberals in Silicon Valley want to shift the balance of power.

Take Jessica Alter. She didn't expect to care. A tech insider who cashed in on the sale of two different startups — her own, and another where she'd worked (which went to AOL for $850 million) — she was not politically engaged. Yes, she voted for president, and always for a Democrat.

But, as she puts it, as recently as January, "I did not know what the DCCC stood for." (The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is an enormous body whose purpose is to help Democrats get elected.)

Alter's focus shifted when President Trump issued the ban against travel from majority Muslim countries. She was beside herself. She lost family in the Holocaust and, she says, her grandmother was part of the Belgian resistance. Alter imagined grandma scolding her, "This is going on and all you're doing is posting on social media."

That weekend, she had an epic texting session with a friend about how outraged so many peers in Silicon Valley were, but also how the right solution for them is not door-knocking or phone banking.

"A very small percentage of them are actually going to quit their jobs and be involved as step one," Alter says. "But a lot of them want to do something and they're highly skilled."

It's widely believed that Silicon Valley has a political bias — that the coders and digital marketing gurus at Facebook and Google are, for the most part, young liberals.

Alter decided to bet on that bias when she dove headfirst into launching Tech For Campaigns, a nonprofit dedicated to funneling tech talent into partisan politics. She and her co-founders recruit online marketers, Web developers and data scientists (from Google, Airbnb, Slack) and put them to work — part-time, pro bono — exclusively for Democrats.

She is part of a movement among Silicon Valley liberals to breathe new life into the dusty machine of their party. In her opinion, this is a crisis moment and legacy institutions, such as the DCCC (she now knows what it stands for), are crawling ahead.

In March, Alter flew out to a meeting convened by an important Democratic entity. (She doesn't want to name the entity and burn bridges.) The very top pollsters and operatives were there and for six hours, she says, they dissected the lessons of 2016. But that's it. "No outcomes, no plan of action to move forward, and a lot of being self-congratulatory about just attending," Alter says.

This was a few weeks into her caring about politics — and a reminder about why she shunned it before.

Alter did her own industry analysis. She talked with party insiders. And she came to the conclusion that, at the level of presidential campaigns — Howard Dean, Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders — Democrats kill it with digital strategy.

But that does not trickle down. The party isn't spending money to teach smaller campaigns how to really use Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat. Tech for Campaigns is working exclusively on state-level races.

On a recent afternoon, Alter holds a confidential campaign call with a candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates. Her tech consultants include Michael Landsberger, who's at an airport security line, traveling for his very demanding day job with the online insurance company Sure Inc.; and Leah Rappaport with Thumbtack, the gig work site.

Rappaport explains to the Virginia team that digital ads are very different from TV. On TV, if you run a negative message to bash the incumbent, everyone sees it. But online, you can pick and choose, and test to see if it works.

"So yes, there is that permanency of putting something out there," she says. "But we can also be careful about whom we're targeting."

This call is happening days after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. Over the weekend, people were emoting on social media — tweeting outrage and clicking emoji (sad face, angry face). Alter wanted them to do real work. She slipped a link to her startup into the stream of Facebook conversations. Since launching, she says, she's recruited 3,000 tech volunteers.

This impressive number is a drop in the bucket, according to operatives who say that Democrats have fallen behind.

As one strategist put it, "We could target a Latino in Florida. But the Republicans could target a Latino in Florida who cares about education, and test messages to see what works."

Phillips Stutts, a consultant for Republican campaigns, agrees. "Republicans are better. For sure. 100 percent," he says. "It's not even a debate that we are head and shoulders above where they are right now."

Stutts is the founder of Go Big Media and his clients include Betsy DeVos, now education secretary. His camp felt like "losers" during the tenure of President Barack Obama. That spurred robust competition in the marketplace, prompting firms like his and Cambridge Analytica to grow. Donors like the Koch brothers and the Mercers gave big contributions to the Republican establishment. And private companies and the party worked in coordination to help smaller campaigns — for governor or state legislature — fight with cutting-edge tech.

Michael Slaby, who served as chief technology officer of Obama for America, says that while Republicans are taking lessons from big campaigns and applying them to smaller ones, "we're more of a thousand flowers blooming."

Slaby is an adviser for Higher Ground Labs, an incubator to help Democrats build political technology. He says campaigns are temporary and technical innovation gets thrown away after Election Day, but "a lot of the things we did live on in the staff, the best practices."

Top Democratic operatives argue that the party can do better than that. The Democratic National Committee hired a former engineer from Uber to lead tech efforts. Raffi Krikorian used to work on the cutting edge of machine learning. He led Uber's move to roll out a self-driving fleet in Pittsburgh. And now at the DNC, he's doing remarkably unsexy, non-cutting edge work that "someone's got to do," he says.

Krikorian plans to take the software built during the Hillary Clinton campaign — whose strength was mass mobilization through texting and emailing — and transfer it to the committee, so that it can arm candidates up and down the ballot, from school boards to the presidency. He's also hoping to usher in a culture shift, so that digital strategists are as standard a part of the campaign toolkit as door-knocking community organizers.

That'll take money. Krikorian reluctantly admits he wants to overhaul the DNC budget so that roughly one-third goes to his technology efforts. (It's nowhere close to that now.) This year alone, that should mean $25 million. And he'd like that figure to grow as elections approach.

"It's not a small amount of money," he says. "The DNC hasn't done major tech investments since 2012. We've only done keep-the-lights-on types of investments."

In an effort to recruit talent and raise funds, Krikorian is splitting his time between Washington, D.C., and Silicon Valley. "We need to be everywhere," he says.

The DNC's hiring of Krikorian has excited liberals in Silicon Valley, including Mark Pincus. The casual-gaming guru who co-funded Zynga says he's tired of writing big checks to candidates he doesn't find inspiring. That's how he felt about Hillary Clinton, whom he backed out of his disdain for Donald Trump.

"I was a big supporter [of hers], but not excited," Pincus says. "It's not a comfortable place to be."

He says the last election made him and others realize that Silicon Valley technology — not just money — is driving political outcomes. And that's spurred him to start another techno-intervention called Win the Future. He describes it, candidly, as a vehicle searching for a direction. "I want to do more, but it's not obvious what to do."

He and others would rather experiment now than wait until the next election to figure it out.

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Aarti Shahani is a correspondent for NPR. Based in Silicon Valley, she covers the biggest companies on earth. She is also an author. Her first book, Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares (out Oct. 1, 2019), is about the extreme ups and downs her family encountered as immigrants in the U.S. Before journalism, Shahani was a community organizer in her native New York City, helping prisoners and families facing deportation. Even if it looks like she keeps changing careers, she's always doing the same thing: telling stories that matter.