Meet the Democrats’ Most Dangerous Digital Strategist
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because she could upend politics as we know it.
On February 3, 2020, the Iowa Democratic caucuses were brought to a screeching halt in part by the failure of an app produced by Shadow — the political tech company cofounded by Tara McGowan’s nonprofit ACRONYM. Below is our profile of McGowan and the risk she was taking with her unconventional model … a model now threatened by the Iowa debacle.
It’s June 26, the first night of the Democratic debates. But at a watch party at the Brixton bar, in Washington’s trendy U Street neighborhood, none of the Democrats are paying attention to the drama on the screen. Instead, they are circled around Tara McGowan, a weapon of a woman whose innovative tactics make her critically important to the Democratic Party … and the biggest threat to the orthodoxy that has made so many left-leaning digital gurus rich in the post-Obama era.
“This was an excuse to throw an open bar,” the 33-year-old brunette quips, promising to keep her speech short. The event is also a birthday party for Acronym, the digital-focused nonprofit she founded in 2017. “It feels like we have lived a thousand years in those two years,” she admits.
Indeed, Acronym has taken hardly any time in breaking the strategy-firm ecosystem in the nation’s capital. By the end of 2018, it had raised and managed more than $18 million, registered 60,000 voters, run 105 targeted ad campaigns in 15 states, helped elect 63 progressive candidates and won 61 percent of the races it invested in. Its staff has grown from five to 38 and it has quickly become one of the go-to digital organizing forces for everyone from Planned Parenthood and Emily’s List to Everytown for Gun Safety and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. And her organization’s weekly newsletter, For What It’s Worth, is becoming a must-read thanks to its smart (and illustration-heavy) look at how the 2020 campaigns are spending money online.
People don’t understand why I am creating a model that I can’t get very rich off of.
While most digital experts specialize in one tactic, the coordinated campaigns built by McGowan bring all the moving parts — from door-knocking and social media campaigns to digital videos and television ads — under one umbrella. “She has very good instincts, metrics and buying strategies,” says Kelly Ward, executive director of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which worked with McGowan to help power the big Democratic gains in Virginia in 2017. While the Democratic presidential candidates duke it out in the primaries, McGowan is focusing Acronym’s efforts on registering voters in Florida, Georgia, Texas and Arizona and also investing in state legislative seats in Virginia, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin and beyond. And once the primaries end, hers will be one of the major forces shaping the Democrats’ general-election fight against Donald Trump.
While the numbers are impressive, what could upend Washington politics entirely is the structure of her organization. Unlike most digital strategists, her operation is what the IRS classifies as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit — meaning a majority of its funds must be used to promote “social welfare.” And yet, Acronym has a web of for-profit companies beneath it: a campaign consulting firm (Lockwood Strategy), a political tech company with a peer-to-peer texting product (Shadow) and a media company investing in local left-leaning outlets (FWIW Media). In the works is an apparel arm (Rogue Swag) that would be the first major liberal answer to conservative companies that skirt campaign finance laws by selling politically branded clothing over Facebook and elsewhere — spreading political messaging without having to report the spending.
It means the nonprofit Acronym is able to raise money, invest in for-profit companies to advance progressive aims and then return any profits back into its mission. “People don’t understand why I am creating a model that I can’t get very rich off of. Because I don’t own the companies; the (c)(4) does,” she says. And that’s a huge threat to political consultants’ bank accounts.
Since the 1980s, says journalist Sasha Issenberg, author of The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns, political firms have specialized in selling specific services: phone calls, direct mail, polls, etc. Today, that can mean separate firms for online videos, TV ads and even paid Facebook outreach vs. organic Facebook outreach. So consultants push for more spending in their individual silos, as opposed to McGowan’s strategy to fold everything under one umbrella — making winning her chief incentive. While McGowan isn’t the first to home in on the problem, she has “probably acted on it with more alacrity than anyone else on the left,” Issenberg says.
McGowan has always had a rebellious streak. An A student with an attitude, she was kicked out of two private high schools while moving around the Northeast for her dad’s corporate job (her transgressions included writing pro-choice essays in religion class and throwing a party at her parents’ house as a sophomore). She was home sick on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, when she and her mom watched the Today show in horror, as planes crashed into the Twin Towers, where her uncle and aunt worked (her aunt didn’t survive). That traumatic experience partly inspired her to go into journalism — her first documentary focused on an Arabic school in Brooklyn that faced Islamophobic attacks — and she went on to work in the famously sexist environment at CBS News’ 60 Minutes.
Tired of the misogyny and disillusioned about her ability to make change through journalism, she was inspired to jump into politics by covering Barack Obama in 2008, leading to jobs in Congress and on the 2012 Obama campaign. “I knew that we shared two fundamental beliefs: that better content yields better results and that you can’t do the same tactic twice,” says kindred soul and punk-rock political strategist Arun Chaudhary, who pushed Obama digital director Teddy Goff to hire McGowan. She spent time at NextGen America, the Tom Steyer–led climate group, and was the first digital director for super PAC Priorities USA Action in 2016.
When reached, many of her competitors declined to comment. Privately, Washington consultants gripe that her nonprofit umbrella model is duplicitous because she could still be paying herself exorbitant amounts through the private companies beneath it. “It’s not a surprise that others on the left are uncomfortable about the disruption,” says Eric Wilson, a Republican political strategist who blogs about digital tactics at LearnTestOptimize.com. An Acronym spokesman declined to reveal McGowan’s salary but confirmed she does not own any equity in the for-profit companies.
McGowan has also advocated for building in-house digital teams at her previous stops, another blow to consultants that could foster distrust. “As Tara has demonstrated at Priorities USA — much to my dismay — you get the better results and more efficiency bringing your buying in-house,” Wilson says. “She’s also exposing many of the less effective advertising tactics on the left.” Chaudhary agrees: “We have to evolve or die. … [She] is asking the right questions and forcing the Democratic Industrial Complex to change.”
McGowan is well aware of her detractors. She believes there are two types of people in politics: those who are motivated by money and those who are motivated by power. She wants power, which means winning elections to enact the policies she believes in. “Too often, in any industry, a drive for profit can lead to greed. And I think that can blur the lines of the real objective here,” she says. “This could be an election that changes entirely how campaigns are run. It could be a catalyst.”
Read more: Playing catch-up with conservatives — can startup energy help Democrats?