clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Donald Trump's Secret Weapon in Winning New Hampshire

Trump and Sanders supporters used NationBuilder to mobilize volunteers.

Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Donald Trump cruised to an early victory in the New Hampshire Republican presidential primary, despite the lack of a sophisticated ground game in the state.

The blunt-talking billionaire relied on his cult of personality to propel him to a first-place finish in the absence of a sophisticated field operation built on data and voter targeting. But Trump’s anti-establishment campaign — and supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who handily won the Democratic primary — benefitted from technology that helped mobilize legions of volunteers in the Granite State.

Supporters for both candidates used NationBuilder to advance their election efforts, according to company founder Jim Gilliam, a political activist and documentary film producer who wanted to give community leaders and nonprofit groups the tools to communicate with and organize their followers.

“The victories of Sanders and Trump today prove that even our highest office is no longer restricted to the powerful political class,” Gilliam said after Tuesday’s primary balloting. “Two campaigns, ridiculed just six months ago, defeated the most well-financed legacies in modern political memory: Bush and Clinton.”

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, long the campaign’s front-runner, finished a distant second in the Democratic presidential primary, while former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was locked in a close race for third place in the Republican contest.

The Los Angeles firm provides software for fund-raising, turning out the vote and organizing volunteers. It’s not affiliated with any political party — a rarity in election politics. In 2015 alone, NationBuilder has helped raise $264 million, recruit more than a million volunteers and coordinate some 129,000 events.

In the 2016 presidential election cycle, Trump’s campaign has used NationBuilder’s software to coordinate volunteer efforts. Meanwhile, Sanders’ supporters took matters into their own hands, using the same tools to create their own “People for Bernie” websites to rally support for the Vermont Senator — without the candidate’s official blessing.

“Together we have sent a message that will echo from Wall Street to Washington, from Maine to California,” Sanders said. “And that is that the government of our great country belongs to all of the people, and not just a handful of wealthy campaign contributors and their Super PACs.”

Neither campaign could be immediately reached for comment.

NationBuilder is the culmination of experiences Gilliam chronicles in the memoir, “The Internet Is My Religion,” which describes how the Web transformed his life and beliefs as he battled cancer.


The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and the Bush administration’s response, spurred the engineer to political activism. He went to work with filmmaker Robert Greenwald and co-founded Brave New Films, turning to the Internet to crowdfund, build an audience and distribute such documentary films as “Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism” and “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price.”

After Barack Obama’s election in 2008, Gilliam began to think about how to use the Internet to advance democracy.

“The Internet — it’s been democratizing all of these other industries — music, publishing. Yet no one was trying to take that same approach with politics,” Gilliam said. “What if we could figure out how to change the rules of the game?”

Gilliam went to work for Girls Who Code founder Reshma Saujani in her unsuccessful 2010 bid for Congress. The organizing tools he built for that campaign would become the foundation for NationBuilder.

NationBuilder has won over converts from Silicon Valley, with Andreessen Horowitz co-founder Ben Horowitz and former Facebook President Sean Parker serving on its board.

Gilliam said he hopes the attention NationBuilder receives from a high-profile political contest like the presidential race will spur others to use its tools to seek local and state office.

“There’s a big crisis of leadership in the world,” Gilliam said. “You can either throw your hands up in the air and say, ‘There’s nothing we can do about it, the system’s corrupt,’ or say, ‘Hey, this is possibly one of the greatest opportunities of all time.'”

Update: Kenneth Pennington, digital director of the Bernie 2016 campaign, got back to us to say that while individual Sanders supporters may use NationBuilder, the campaign uses technology from a rival firm, Blue State Digital. “We do work with a lot of vendors, whose products we use,” he said. “Blue State Digital is NationBuilder’s competitor. We’ve very happy with their service.”

This article originally appeared on