Why you should care
The 2018 midterms have witnessed an unprecedented use of these platforms.
Ilhan Omar stepped up to the podium wearing a gray pinstripe blazer and a black hijab. A cheering crowd welcomed her as she began her victory speech with “As-salaam alaikum” — “Peace be upon you” in Arabic. As the state representative from Minnesota, Omar will be the first Muslim woman to serve in the U.S. Congress — a particularly impressive feat in an election cycle filled with Islamophobic rhetoric. How did she pull it off?
Texting, for one. Omar and many other Democratic candidates used Hustle, a peer-to-peer (P2P) texting platform that helps candidates connect with voters, recruit volunteers and fundraise. But Omar went a step further: She also used it to reach out to delegates ahead of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party’s June convention in Minnesota and to encourage rally attendance. And she planned ahead in the hope she would win, using Hustle to find “apartment captains” — people who would host events and keep local residents engaged once she’s in office.
Hustle is just one of a number of startups — on both sides of the aisle — that have emerged in recent years and are leveraging technology beyond traditional social media platforms in grassroots and political organizing. As national political debate gets increasingly heated, they’re witnessing growing traction, with unprecedented usage in the just-concluded midterms. For liberals, they’re tools to resist the Trump presidency. For conservatives, they’re weapons to fight back against those progressive efforts.
Ragtag, founded in 2016, connects people who have technical skills to left-of-center campaigns and organizations that need them. The Action Network, started in 2012, is using an advanced digital toolkit to mobilize more volunteers in the progressive movement than ever before. OpnSesame and RumbleUp, both founded last year, are texting platforms similar to Hustle but are focused exclusively on conservative campaigns and causes. And i360, which started in 2009, is a Koch brothers–backed technology used by several conservative organizers that connects voter information with data from credit bureaus and previous voting records.
Together, these apps helped Democrats and Republicans draw out a record number of voters — an estimated 113 million Americans — in the midterms. Hustle reached approximately 25 million potential voters during the midterms and was used in successful campaigns for 21 House seats, 330 state legislative seats and 14 gubernatorial elections. At the other end of the political spectrum, RumbleUp worked with more than 100 right-of-center governors, senators and congresspeople during the midterms.
[These apps] reach more people with fewer resources.
Brady Kriss, Ragtag
“Technology is the key to amplifying the humanizing power of each organizer and volunteer,” says Roddy Lindsay, who co-founded San Francisco–based Hustle in 2014. “And P2P texting like Hustle scales authentic voter conversations.”
What makes these apps different from mainstream social media platforms is their use of data analytics to connect identified voters with specific political campaigns. Smart-tech research helps too. A former Facebook data scientist, Lindsay noticed how much faster his friends and family respond to texts than emails and wondered if texting would be more effective in reaching voters. It turns out Lindsay was right: 90 percent of texts are read within three minutes, with four times the click-through rate and 16 times the conversion rate of email, according to mobile research firm MobileSQUARED.
But it’s today’s deep political divide that’s giving these tech tools clearly defined markets. Even though the underlying technology and ideas behind many of these tools are similar, the people behind them are clear that they’re catering to voters and campaigns on one side or the other, not both.
Stephanie Sharp was elected three times to the Kansas House of Representatives. She left the legislature in 2008, became a political consultant and in 2011 launched an app called VoteSharp that allows candidates to track voter data as they’re canvassing. They track academic affiliation, whether they have a dog, their occupation and more, and they can share it with overlapping elected officials. She’s had clients email Kansas University fans for a Final Four watch party at a local bar and another send mailers about her rescue boxers to dog owners. The app gets people to the polls because “voters who get highly targeted pieces turn out in higher numbers than other voters,” Sharp says.
Right-of-center grassroots organization Americans for Prosperity uses the data and voter targeting capabilities of i360, a closed loop, peer-to-peer texting service, throughout the year, not just when it’s time to vote. The tool draws consumer data from credit bureaus and links it with voter information. “The mistake that so many people make with voter contact is they only think of November,” says Micah Derry, state director for the Ohio chapter of Americans for Prosperity. “But our voter contact isn’t just for elections. It alerts people to what their legislators are doing now at the local, state and federal levels.”
OpnSesame has helped more than 200 conservative campaigns to date, just one year after its launch. “P2P is the most powerful political tool since television,” says Gerrit Lansing, co-founder of OpnSesame. “Smart campaigns, nonprofits and companies are already moving to revolve their marketing and organizing around P2P texting.” Where Hustle allows customers — campaigns in this case — to use it in ways they think work best for them, OpnSesame is focused on enterprise-grade clients like political action committees, helping them create strategies and consulting with them on tactics.
Pointed political emails have their market too. When he decided to start the Action Network in 2012, Brian Young was working for John Kerry, the former secretary of state who was then a senator. Occupy Wall Street was in full swing and people were using sites like Change.org to organize. Young realized their toolset could be significantly beefed up. He began building the essential toolkit for organizers: email campaign capabilities, fundraising tools and a platform for contacting legislators. For four years, the Action Network grew steadily. And then 2016 happened. “Everything changed in November 2016,” Young says. “The Women’s March, the Climate Change March — they were all using us.”
Their growth continues to skyrocket. In October, during midterm crunch time, the Action Network sent out more emails in one month than they did in all of 2016. Big wins rolled in for their users. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws used the platform to win marijuana legalization in Michigan and medical marijuana legalization in Missouri and Utah. After Taylor Swift told her Instagram followers to get registered at Vote.org, the nonprofit amplified that callout with the Action Network to register more than 400,000 voters.
Some organizations are focusing on tapping not voters but tech professionals who could help campaigns.
Brady Kriss founded Ragtag in San Francisco just after the 2016 elections. The former director of support for President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign, Kriss frequently heard others in the tech community say they wanted to get involved in progressive causes but didn’t know how. “I wanted to help people who have technical skills find good and effective ways to use them,” she says. Today, Ragtag has worked with 75 progressive organizations and has supported more than 400 candidates, assisting them with content management systems, security and privacy best practices — “the nerdy, back-end stuff,” Kriss says — that are often overlooked but are critical, as the Russian hack of Democrats’ emails in 2016 showed. The real power of technology in campaigning, says Kriss, is that it allows you to “reach more people with fewer resources.”
But many people don’t like being texted out of the blue by politicians. While P2P texting is different than blast texting — there’s always a real person on the other end, never a bot — a message from someone you don’t know can seem intrusive.
P2P texting organizations understand those risks. “Hustle never asks for anything right off the bat,” according to a Hustle company representative. They obtain phone numbers from public voting records, and if someone replies saying “stop,” “unsubscribe” or even “f*ck off,” they comply immediately. “It’s a person on the other end, so the message will be received.”
Receiving and effectively communicating messages is, after all, what these firms are all about — quietly. You may not hear candidates thank them from victory podiums, but they’re increasingly the tools helping candidates get there.
* Correction: The original version of this article implied that VoteSharp only helped Republican candidates when, in fact, it is nonpartisan.