From automakers retooling assembly lines to make ventilators to sit-down restaurants pivoting to curbside pickup to hackathons organized to fight the coronavirus pandemic, innovation-driven by our new reality is now bubbling up across the U.S. economy.
In the campaign industry, the same push is happening. The difference is the winners of this race won’t just be better positioned in the market when the economy returns to strength, they could also help tilt the presidential contest, possibly decide control of Congress, and shape countless down-ballot races in November.
It’s hard to understate the scope of the problem now facing the campaign industry. Some of the tools and tactics that have existed since the dawn of American democracy are now ineffective. Specifically, in-person events, whatever their size, which were the basis for mobilization and fundraising, are now canceled for the foreseeable future.
In their absence, firms are moving to give campaigns an alternative. One company that’s made the shift to exclusively online events is MobilizeAmerica, Inc., the Democratic events and voter contact platform akin to Eventbrite.
“Prior to social distancing, we had 20 [presidential primary] campaigns who would have tens of thousands of events up at any given times — canvasses, phone banks — huge levels of organizing that was happening in-person and online,” said Alfred Johnson, co-founder and CEO of Mobilize.
“The highest number of signups we’d ever seen was the Friday before Super Tuesday,” when Mobilize had 54,000 signs ups across all its posted events, he explained. In April, the platform saw roughly 57,000 signups per week.
While Johnson admits that activity has dipped since Super Tuesday, there’s “still a large amount of activity that we’re seeing on the platform."
“Volunteers are wanting to engage,” said Johnson. "We may all be home, but we all are wanting to make a difference particularly in this moment that feels scary on so many levels.”
The draw for an in-person rally or fundraiser is usually the candidate. But online, that audience can be hard to replicate. Mobilize’s users are going through trial and error.
“We’re seeing people experiment with having an artist perform something via a livestream, [or] have a fireside chat with the candidate,” said Johnson.
He added: “If you can get six people to sign onto a fireside chat once a week, just because it isn’t a thousand people doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.”
Mobilize, which is based in New York and has been backed by Higher Ground Labs, was launched in 2017 and at the start of the year announced it had gone through another round of funding, which raised $3.75 million.
There isn’t a directly comparable platform on the right. For instance, the Trump campaign and many Republican groups use Eventbrite for volunteer and in-person ticketed events.
“At the top of the ticket, the Trump campaign’s digital and technology operation will be impossible for the Democrats to beat,” said Eric Wilson, managing partner of the GOP tech accelerator Startup Caucus. “Down the ballot, however, Republicans are struggling to match the left’s investments in campaign technology and cultural commitment to fully coordinated campaigns.”
Still, there are some firms on the right who are adapting quickly to the new environment. Tommy Knepper, co-founder of In Field Strategies, was gearing up for a busy season of canvassing and peer-to-peer (P2P) texting when 2020 started. He’s since combined two products from his firm into a “virtual canvass.”
It costs 5 cents more per SMS or MMS text but delivers a picture of literature, a gif or video to the recipient, who then gets engaged by paid field staff who follow a script similar to a canvasser.
Knepper said he’s still doing client education on the product.
“At first, it seems like everyone is holding their breath. No one knew how long it was going to last so they didn’t want to change their campaign plan,” he said.
Now, he thinks it could catch on given that in-person canvassing could have less appeal even closer to November because of a potential resurgence of COVID-19.
“It’s your next best option — and really your only option currently,” he said, noting that his firm has seen a 30-40 percent increase in P2P engagement across the board. “I don’t think you’re going to hit that exact same feeling as face-to-face interaction. But over the next two months, obviously, no one in the country is going to want a face-to-face interaction.”