President Donald Trump’s fiercest foes in Silicon Valley are feeling emboldened after a series of election wins in Virginia — and they’re angling to supercharge their efforts to aid Democrats in time for the next round in 2018.
More than 2,800 miles away from the Bay Area, a coterie of Trump-hating tech activists — including Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn — devoted millions of dollars and countless hours in November toward securing Democrats another term in the governor’s mansion and capturing more than a dozen new seats in the state’s legislature.
Hoffman spent roughly $3 million on candidates and causes in Virginia, sources told Recode. Experienced tech engineers and political operatives, meanwhile, plugged into local campaigns to help them with everything from Facebook ads to text messages. And activists working alongside the Democratic National Committee experimented with chat bots and polling startups as part of its quest “to become the party of the future,” the DNC said in a memo this month.
“For the first time in a VERY long time, the DNC used new tools and data to organize and get our voters to the poll,” said the committee’s chief executive, Jess O’Connell, in the Nov. 8 note.
It might have been Trump’s unpopularity, not the tech industry’s assistance, that turned the tide for Democrats in the so-called Old Dominion. Still, a newfound optimism has galvanized fundraising, hiring and innovating, as tech next sets its sights on the 2018 midterms, when control of the U.S. Congress is up for grabs.
Well-known Valley investor Ron Conway, for one, is starting to open up his checkbook, he told Recode.
“What better thing for the tech community to do than to apply hacking and innovative techniques for getting out the vote, for identifying voters,” Conway said at an event in San Francisco. “We want those political hackers to be successful.”
The perfect political sandbox
Entering Virginia’s November election, Democrats faced an immense challenge: They knew the race would be treated as an early referendum on their ability to rebound a year after Trump unexpectedly won the White House.
But Virginia’s off-year 2017 contest also offered them an opportunity: It allowed new tech activists and old Democratic loyalists alike to test tools and tactics a year before millions of voters, all around the country, would head to the polls for the all-important midterms.
Much of their early experimentation focused on convincing voters to head to the ballot box in the first place, a difficult task when presidential candidates aren’t on the ticket. That’s why the DNC — with the aid of its new chief tech officer, Raffi Krikorian — teamed up with its allies in Virginia to try to nudge voters directly. Using a slew of new apps, they helped send more than 3.5 million text messages to locals and volunteers ahead of Election Day, the party estimated.
Much of the coordinated campaign benefited Ralph Northam, who sought and won the state’s governor’s mansion by a large margin. He also had help from Planned Parenthood and other progressive organizations focused on climate change and racial justice, which banded together to rally their supporters using Facebook. Leading their $3 million ad blitz was Tara McGowan, a Democratic strategist who devised her own new shop, called Acronym, in an attempt to battle Trump in the digital trenches.
And Democrats throughout the state placed their bets in startups new to the political scene. They deployed Grove AI, for example, an artificial intelligence-powered chatbot on Facebook that steered volunteers toward taking action, like rallying and donating.
They also teamed up with Qriously, a new polling company, which surveys users not through phone calls but in queries sent via popular, third-party games or weather apps. And Democrats relied heavily on VoterCircle, which can parse a voter’s contact list, identify would-be Democratic supporters and local influencers, and allow organizers to contact them through emails.
Some of the startups that Democrats harnessed are outgrowths of the so-called resistance, the disparate anti-Trump forces that metastasized in Silicon Valley and beyond following the president’s inauguration. And many had financial backing from Valley venture capitalists like LinkedIn’s Hoffman, as well as groups he’s supported, including Higher Ground Labs, a new incubator that seeks to identify the next generation of campaign technologies that can help Democrats win.
Launched earlier this year, Higher Ground Labs is comprised of former President Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaign veterans. So far, it’s raised roughly $2.5 million and invested in newcomers like Qriously and VoterCircle. And the local incubator sought to boost more battle-tested ideas, like Hustle, in Virginia this year.
The app, deployed with great success by 2016 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, allowed campaigns to tap the Democratic Party’s official trove of voter information and text Virginians about issues, events and polling stations. In the final five days of the state’s 2017 contest, at least, Hustle helped send 546,000 texts to roughly 10 percent of registered voters, its leader, Roddy Lindsay, revealed in an interview.
To that end, Lindsay said he believed the successes realized by Hustle and others in Virginia could help spur “hopefully more investment” in campaign technology. And there are already signs that’s happening: Days before Virginia’s election, well-known Valley venture capitalist Conway invested in Higher Ground Labs, he told Recode, without specifying an amount.
Shomik Dutta, one of the founders of Higher Ground Labs, said it’s too early to tell if a specific app or technology is primed to deliver Democrats more victories in 2018. But, he stressed in an interview: "I think the resistance is real.”
The states matter
To some tech activists, though, it’s not that Democrats lack tech tools. It’s that lesser-known, small-time statehouse candidates simply can’t take advantage of them.
That’s why Tech for Campaigns, a Bay Area-based organization founded this year, sought to focus its energy on Virginia. It placed some of its roughly 3,000 tech-savvy volunteers — anti-Trump types from companies like Facebook, NerdWallet and more — with local office-seekers who needed critical tech help in their bid to capture the House of Delegates for Democrats.
These engineers and investors and entrepreneurs didn’t seek seats for their own sake. State legislators possess the power to draw the invisible lines that determine federal congressional districts. And Virginia, like the lion’s share of state legislative bodies around the country, had been under Republican control — giving the GOP great influence in shaping the composition of the U.S. Congress.
“We can’t sustainably flip anything unless we control redistricting,” said Jessica Alter, the founder and leader of Tech for Campaigns.
Beginning in March, her group worked with Virginia’s official Democratic arm for candidates seeking election to the House of Delegates, as well as 12 local office-seekers directly. Among the beneficiaries was Chris Hurst, a former news anchor who came to politics after his girlfriend, also a reporter, was shot dead live on television. TFC, as its known, sought to improve Hurst’s ability to target locals on Facebook and reach younger voters via text. And combined with his own campaigning and name recognition, he emerged victorious against his opponent, who was backed by the National Rifle Association.
Some of that work might sound like obvious elements of modern-day campaigning. But the tasks TFC performed — from aiding candidates with digital ads to building and automating their donor lists — often are neglected in local races due a lack of funding, tech smarts or staff, Alter said.
In the end, nine of the 12 campaigns that her group assisted won their contests. Two candidates are in the process of demanding a recount; the other lost by a small margin. And Democrats gained great ground in the House of Delegates, turning a double-digit deficit in the chamber into nearly a 50-50 split in votes with the GOP.
With those victories in hand, Alter’s group has since set its sights on a new challenge: Raising enough money to assist at least 500 Democratic candidates seeking spots on their local legislatures next year.
“There’s still a lot of education to be done that state-level races are really responsible for most of the big issues that you care about, like gun control, like education, like health care, like LGBT rights, like women’s rights,” she said.
‘A surge in Democratic turnout’
For now, even strident Democratic activists can’t tell if their investments meaningfully shifted the tide. It’ll be months before Virginia releases the data that donors and entrepreneurs need in order to assess whether texting apps and AI chatbots actually worked.
But there’s at least an early sense — given the sheer volume of voters this November — that their contributions had impact.
“A lot of these groups — new technologies, new organizations, new approaches — were very active, and contributed in a very large uptick in outreach,” said Dmitri Mehlhorn, a political strategist for LinkedIn’s Hoffman. “And this contributed to a surge in Democratic turnout.”
Indeed, voting in Virginia’s gubernatorial election measured at its highest in 20 years, early reports indicate. That’s why some of the state’s most active donors, like Hoffman, had committed much of their cash to get-out-the vote efforts in the first place.
Starting this summer, Hoffman approached his Virginia investments much in the way he might have tackled early seed rounds at his venture firm, Greylock. Broad swaths of his eye-popping $3 million spend landed in the laps of new organizations, like Win Virginia, which enlisted apps like VoterCircle and provided them to campaigns so they could speak to voters in new, digital-first ways.
For now, Hoffman hasn’t said much about his next moves. Previously, though, the LinkedIn co-founder has said that he has his eye on 2018, when voters will determine the composition of the U.S. Congress. If Democrats prevail, taking the House or the Senate, they could erect a new legislative bulwark against Trump’s policies on immigration, climate change and more — areas where the White House and the tech industry sharply disagree.
Of course, the Valley’s most powerful asset in those race might be their No. 1 enemy: Trump, whose popularity numbers have soured nationwide. In Virginia, at least, his disapproval nearly reached 60 percent by Election Day, perhaps motivating voters to head to the polls in November.
To the resistance’s tech types, though, their tools at least can amplify Trump’s troubles — and their Democratic alternatives. And Valley veterans are beginning to sense that bigger investments and even greater, earlier attempts to leverage technology in national elections, can eventually pave the way toward toppling Trump himself.
“Everyone’s been working really hard, everyone wants to change the country for the better,” said Sangeeth Peruri, the leader of VoterCircle. “And when you get some success, it motivates you.”
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.