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Turns out Silicon Valley can help down-ballot campaigns win.
Some consultants noted recently how the two industries still have trouble building bridges despite a growing sense of activism in Silicon Valley and the increasing digitization of campaigns’ voter outreach.
One effort to cross the divide, which provided volunteer technologists to down-ballot campaigns on a per-project basis, was ridiculed by consultants who questioned how it could possibly work. But that effort may prove a successful model, which has the potential to undercut some digital consultants’ market share.
Several managers who spoke with C&E described how Tech for Campaigns provided crucial digital services that often threaded the needle between what paid consultants were doing and the capabilities of the campaigns’ themselves. These services ranged from website design to social media targeting.
“Our consultants were typically doing mail, pre-roll and TV,” said Trent Armitage, who recently served as the executive director of the Virginia House Democratic Caucus during the 2017 campaign.
The services offered by TFC, which included aggregating donor data, email fundraising and redistricting modeling, “didn’t eliminate the need for paid consultants. But there was great synergy between [TFC] and other groups that formed on the field side.”
As part of his role, Armitage was on the receiving end of countless pitches from groups like Run for Something, One Vote At A Time and Arena PAC looking for ways to get involved in the Virginia off-year races.
TFC succeeded in getting in the door, he said, through its co-founder, Jessica Alter, developing a working relationship with the caucus, and then delivering results.
“It was very much an open-ended, tell-us-what-you-need [approach],” he said. “They did some donor data aggregation for us that was just phenomenal.”
After winning over Armitage, he then referred TFC to some of his campaign managers in need of their help.
Andrew Whitley, who was managing Chris Hurst’s delegate campaign, needed a website built.
Like Armitage, he was also receiving solicitations from groups to get involved in his race. “Right as Chris announced, we were getting emails from a grassroots group a day, which had risen up after Donald Trump [won the presidency]. It was great, but a little overwhelming to get that many emails that kind offered to do the same thing.”
He added: “We were focused on raising money and a Facebook presence wasn’t something we were too in the weeds on.”
But their weak online presence, which included a “very rudimentary, very basic WordPress” website, was holding back their fundraising. Donors weren’t impressed when they looked Hurst up online.
After being introduced by Armitage to TFC’s Alter, Whitley made his wish list clear: “Our website is crap, can you fix it for us?”
Whitley recalled, “They very quickly agreed to do it. That was their first project and that’s what got them in the door with us.”
After dolling up the website, Whitley said they took over managing paid social media for the campaign.
“They very quickly went from a group that helped us put a website together, to a group that helped us spend $25,000 online,” he said. “For a small campaign like ours, they were really crucial in helping with the narrative that we were everywhere.”
Whitley said that social media content production and targeting would previously had fallen on his shoulders. He was grateful for the help and found the volunteers assembled by Alter to be responsive, typically within 24 hours.
“Even though they weren’t getting paid they were just as reliable as anyone else on our team,” he said, adding that Hurst, a challenger, won by roughly 10 points.
Tim Wagner, who managed Mike Mullin’s delegate campaign, was also impressed by TFC’s volunteers, but for a different reason. In fact, his campaign was also on the receiving end of their social media advertising advice.
But Wagner noted that in addition to not having to pay for it, the advice was delivered without any drama.
“It’s refreshing to get out of that DC bubble and be able to use people who have a set of skills that are just non-political,” he said.
“This was an opportunity to have the brightest minds in their specific field and that was digital strategy. In a normal sense, you wouldn’t be able to get these people to work on your campaign.”
Wagner said the advisors didn’t encroach into advising the campaign on messaging, or other areas where they weren’t seeking help. They explained to Wagner, “All the power is to you, what you decide on, we’ll give you the tools to be able to get that out.”
To help direct some $30,000 in paid social spending, Wagner held weekly calls and exchanged daily emails with the TFC’s advisors. The money went into Google AdWords, Facebook and Twitter.
Mullen won by 20 points, the largest margin in the district since 1995.
“That was a big part of our success,” he said. “Sometimes it’s important to get a different viewpoint.”