How Republicans Plan to Win, Even With Social Distancing
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because relational organizing may be the key to campaigns in the coronavirus era.
In September 2009, Lisa Schneegans and her husband, Klaus, were in Washington, D.C., protesting the Obama presidency as part of the tea party movement. But despite their conservative activism, the Minnesota couple and tech co-founders never thought about the business side until a close friend declared that the enterprise-focused software they’d developed was “perfect for politics.”
Out of that comment, the Schneegans founded Buzz360, a software platform aimed at conservative candidates and advocacy groups. And while political tech startups are a dime a dozen these days, Buzz360 stands out with its newest product, SwipeRed (yes, SwipeRight was already taken). It’s an app that allows volunteers and staffers to upload voter contact lists and then directly send targeted messages to family and friends — via text, email, Facebook and a number of other social platforms. Such technology is especially important now that the coronavirus has forced people into their homes and away from traditional political persuasion venues such as rallies or door-to-door canvassing.
(The death toll from COVID-19 in the U.S., and how it compares with America’s losses in modern wars and other crises.)
“People trust what their friends say more than what any politician or brand says,” Lisa explains. Until she and Klaus came on the scene, that type of massively scaled, friend-to-friend direct messaging software was mostly accessible only to Democrats, who already have programs like Outreach Circle and the Tuesday Company.
[Campaigns] want to know they can trust you, and so we chose conservatives because that’s where our values line up.
“This is the only tech-enabled relational organizing tool available to Republicans,” says Eric Wilson, a GOP digital strategist and managing partner at Startup Caucus, a conservative venture capital fund that has invested $25,000 in Buzz360. “I’m a big believer in relational organizing. Especially now, it’s going to be really important to tap into the relationships that your supporters already have.” Schneegans boasts that, industrywide, relational organizing apps net an 80 percent increase in campaign volunteers within a week of being deployed.
The platform, and its newest flagship product, already have approximately a dozen Republican candidates using its beta version, in everything from city council races to U.S. House and state Senate across the U.S. And once it fully launches in April, Schneegans is confident that Buzz360 will expand its influence across the map. “We are receiving two to three inbound calls a day, and our full marketing plan hasn’t started yet,” she says. “This is word of mouth.”
The early results have been praised by candidates such as Scott Louser, a North Dakota state representative who used the Buzz360 platform in his reelection campaign: “The website was just the attention-getter; the true functionality came on the back end of the site.” Another client, Minnesota state Sen. Mark Koran, praised it for giving Republicans a way to reach voters directly through texts while eschewing platforms like Facebook and YouTube that they believe are skewed against them. “We have to be one step out the door with any tech platform,” Koran told Wired.
Schneegans, who declines to give her age except to say that she is “over 55,” may seem an unlikely evangelist for the next wave of political tech. She’s decidedly un-D.C., a Minnesota mom who grew up water skiing in Moorhead — just across the North Dakota border from Fargo — and sports a green thumb (she grew the flowers used in both her sons’ weddings). But don’t let that folksy image disguise Schneegans’ technical know-how. Her first unlikely flirtation with tech came while working at the United Sugars Corp., where she was assigned to lead an enterprise resource-planning project through the popular SAP software. In 2001, she and Klaus founded Praxis Software Solutions, which created and sold e-commerce and web customer relationship management software before being bought by SAP AG.
Still, the Schneegans had a learning curve with Buzz360. When they founded the company, in 2015, they didn’t set out to just benefit fellow Republicans, figuring, “Hey, blue money spends as easily as red money.” But the unapologetic capitalists soon realized that this free market — the political tech sphere — doesn’t tolerate playing both sides. “We quickly learned that the trust factor was so high here, we felt like we had to pick one or the other,” Lisa says. “They are sharing campaign information, data. They want to know they can trust you, and so we chose conservatives because that’s where our values line up.”
The Schneegans also discovered some of the challenges of keeping pace with the rapidly changing rules set by social media sites for political campaigns and apps. In fact, Buzz360 was tantalizingly close to launching its first iteration of SwipeRed in spring 2018 — but it became unusable after Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress, and Facebook began limiting the user data it releases to third-party operators. “It was a huge challenge. You’re starting a new app, you’ve got your whole spec done and ready to go, have your developers working for months … and all of a sudden you’re dead in the water,” Lisa says.
That setback has made the SwipeRed app stronger in the long run, though. The app now uses information local to its users’ phones, rather than relying on platforms like Facebook to provide data. And like most hard-charging entrepreneurs, the Schneegans are dreaming big about its potential. “Obviously, we will try to get the Trump campaign,” Lisa says, although she acknowledges that that pitch will have to come after the app is battle-tested. “You just don’t want to start a brand-new product on the president.”
But as the 2020 campaign unfurls on a digital playing field reshaped by the coronavirus, the Schneegans’ tools will be critical to down-ballot candidates who can no longer rely on human contact to introduce themselves. By the time the year is done, Lisa says, she hopes they will have played a role in flipping Congress or the Minnesota Statehouse back to Republican hands. “That, to me, is the real thing we’re working for.”