AFTER A PRESIDENTIAL campaign ends–particularly if it ends badly—the campaign’s once-innovative tools to target voters tend to collect dust along with unused boxes of buttons and bumper stickers. Unlike the campaign tchotchke, however, those data analytics and targeting tools could actually be useful to future national and state campaigns.
Now, a group of former Obama staffers is trying to break that cycle. The group, Higher Ground Labs, is taking a note from Sand Hill Road and applying venture-capital tactics to progressive politics. On Wednesday, Higher Ground is disclosing investments totaling nearly $1.5 million in 10 startups and enrolling them in a five-month accelerator program, during which they’ll work with mentors from the political-tech space to build their businesses.
“We haven’t built a culture around investors who invest in political tech in a real way. So people have had a hard time getting off the ground,” says Betsy Hoover, a co-founder of Higher Ground, who worked for both Obama presidential campaigns in online and field organizing. “I think there’s a real moment to think about this differently.”
Higher Ground, whose founders also include former Obama-administration staffers Shomik Dutta and Andrew McLaughlin, debuted in May. Since then, some 150 groups have applied to participate in the accelerator program and a related fellowship program. Higher Ground has raised $2.5 million from investors spanning politics and the tech industry. The companies receiving funding include Qriously, which uses programmatic online ads instead of phone calls to gauge public opinion, Victory Guide, a so-called “digital campaign manager” that gives local candidates a day-by-day agenda of campaign goals, and Tuesday Strategies, which helps volunteers send personalized text messages to friends the campaign wants to reach.
Tuesday Strategies grew out of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 field organizing efforts in Michigan. Clinton lost Michigan, but Tuesday Strategies CEO Michael Luciani said the company’s tactics helped the campaign beat its outreach targets in the state. “There’s a much higher response rate because it’s coming from a friend, not a stranger,” Luciani says of the personalized text messages.
Luciani and co-founders Shola Farber and Jordan Birnholtz say Higher Ground’s investment will help Tuesday Strategies build and sustain its product as it gains campaign clients. Already, it’s working with state house, city council, and gubernatorial candidates in Virginia, New York, and Michigan.
In many ways, what’s happening on the left today mirrors what happened on the right in 2012. Daniel Kreiss, a professor at the University of North Carolina and author of the book Prototype Politics, says Republicans realized after Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney that they were at a technological disadvantage. “Romney lost an election that people on the right believed he should have won,” says Kreiss, who is tabulating how many new organizations have grown out of the 2016 election.
Perhaps the most powerful Republican startup to come from the post-2012 era is Cambridge Analytica, which ran the data operation for President Trump’s campaign. Cambridge was unusual because it was backed by billionaire hedge fund manager Robert Mercer, giving it the resources to sustain itself between presidential campaigns. Most political tech must rely on presidential campaigns and, to a lesser extent, mid-term elections to stay financially viable.
“One of the things the right has seemingly done well understands they could bankroll these larger ventures to insulate them during those off years,” Kreiss says.
With Higher Ground, Hoover and her co-founders hope to do the same on the left. They’re not the only ones. The Arena launched a PAC to fund promising progressive start-ups and individuals. Hillary Clinton’s own PAC, Onward Together, has awarded grants to groups like Swing Left, Emerge America, and Run for Something, which help fund state races and encourage new candidates to seek office.
To Hoover, that’s a promising sign. And yet it raises the specter of dividing limited resources among many organizations that must prove their worth and may compete with one another for both donors’ and voters’ attention.
Hoover dismisses those concerns. They assume that “there’s a finite pie of money going around, and I just don’t think that’s the case,” she says. She’s hoping the surge in interest on the left helps create tools and products that extend beyond a single election cycle.