Twenty-five Democratic presidential candidates are too much for one debate stage — or even two. But are they enough to spark the next revolution in political tech?
Having this many reasonably credible campaigns creates logistical challenges for Democrats beyond the debate hall. Mo’ options, mo’ problems. With all these voices crying for attention, the party may risk dividing and squandering the grassroots enthusiasm that powered its victories last fall. Certainly, the presidential campaigns are already competing for scarce staff and resources that might otherwise go to statewide races or nationwide persuasion campaigns.
But 25 presidential digital teams will hire a whole lot of both staff and consultants in the end, many of them innocent of any skills until they get trained. As the presidential hopefuls flame out in the early primaries or before, their digital staff will find their ways to other candidates and other fights, where they’ll be much in demand. I suspect that people new to the field this cycle will be running campaigns before we get to Election Day.
Another likely outcome of the crowded presidential space: new technology startups incubated in the heat of the political season. The Democratic political tech world abounds with companies built around the inventions and experience of digital teams formed to put someone in the White House. Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign begat Blue State Digital, which four years later helped elect Barack Obama. Obama’s 2008 campaign sparked Bully Pulpit Interactive, and ’08 and ’12 Obama veterans were also behind 270 Strategies, Civis Analytics and BlueLabs.
The process didn’t stop when Obama left the White House. Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign put peer-to-peer texting tool Hustle on the map, but it also yielded a serious competitor for that firm, in the form of the company now known as GetThru (formerly Relay), founded by Bernie staffers once his campaign shut down. Even more recently, people working for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s congressional campaign created an app called Reach to fill a gap in the grassroots toolkit. It’s now available to other progressives advocating for issues or running for office across the country.
Look for super PACs and other outside groups to create new tech and new startups as well. PrioritiesUSA recently announced plans to build a 13-person internal analytics team to target persuasion outreach between now and November 2020, an approach that I suspect we’ll see replicated elsewhere. Will they or their peers develop a model that leads to a new business? Startups might grow from work even farther afield: Greenpeace spun off its Mobilisation Lab (headed by a Dean ’04 alum) to consult with international advocacy campaigns several years ago.
As more campaigns and party organizations build tech teams in-house, some consultants may feel the pressure. But with Democrats contesting so many races at all levels across the country, and with grassroots donors willing to take risks with their money, I suspect that most will find plenty of business to go around.
And with potential sources of new ideas and new talent abounding this year, the folks at Higher Ground Labs shouldn’t have to look far to find the next round of Democratic startups to nurture. A competitive political marketplace whose ultimate beneficiaries include just about everyone running or advocating on the left? Slightly ironic, perhaps, but a powerful dynamic nonetheless.
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning website Epolitics.com, author of the new 2019 edition of “How to Use the Internet to Change the World – and Win Elections,” a twenty-two-year veteran of online politics and a perpetual skeptic. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at email@example.com.