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Can Democrats Harness the #Resistance?

The party’s fortunes hinge on turning anti-Trump energy into votes. A wave of new startups aims to help.

Almost as soon as Donald Trump was elected, an energetic resistance arose to counter him, spawning hundreds of new grass-roots activist groups and the Jan. 21 Women’s March that drew 2.6 million protesters in Washington, D.C., and across the globe. But Democrats have learned the hard way that antipathy for Trump doesn’t automatically translate to votes—and if the resistance marchers don’t show up at the ballot box next year, their protests won’t matter. In her new memoir, Hillary Clinton expresses admiration for them, but adds a dig: “I couldn’t help but ask where those feelings of solidarity, outrage and passion had been during the election?”

Clinton wasn’t the only one to whom this thought occurred. Since November, a new generation of progressive entrepreneurs and activists have quit their jobs to run for office or launch startups aimed at helping Democrats identify and turn out supporters, especially among groups like millennials and minorities that didn’t show up for Clinton.

Danica Roem, second from left, the Democratic nominee for the Virginia House of Delegates’ 13th District seat, talks with voters as she canvasses a neighborhood in Manassas, Va., on June 21, 2017.
Photographer: Steve Helber/AP

To reach people who didn’t vote, it helps to meet them on their turf, with enough of an enticement to grab their attention. That’s why, one night in September, the staff of MobilizeAmerica, a new field-organizing app, was crammed into a dressing room backstage at an Arcade Fire concert at Capital One Arena in Washington—and why they’d brought along Danica Roem, the first transgender candidate to run for Virginia’s House of Delegates.

MobilizeAmerica was founded in May by two friends, Allen Kramer, 26, and Alfred Johnson, 31. Until last November, both were happily toiling in the private sector. Kramer, who grew up in New York City, worked at Bain & Co. in San Francisco. Johnson, who hails from Washington, played defensive end on Stanford’s football team, then stuck around Palo Alto for business school and a job at a fintech startup. Trump’s election jolted them in a new direction. “Alfred and I had a collective realization,” says Kramer, who’d returned to Bain after taking a leave to work on Clinton’s campaign. “I was helping a large corporation figure out how to sell IT hardware online. Quantitively, very interesting problem. But I’d just come back from the campaign with the gut-wrenching context of having seen what happened up close. We knew we had to do something.”

They quit their jobs and moved back east. With business-school rigor, they set off on a fact-finding tour, quizzing campaign managers, organizers, activists, and data scientists to find the gaps in the system that were causing Democrats up and down the ticket to lose winnable races. They were searching for a business idea. “We kept coming back to the fact that we had millions of people marching in the streets,” says Johnson. “There had to be ways to plug those people into the electoral opportunities that mattered most.”

What MobilizeAmerica landed on could be described as “Tinder for the Resistance”: a mobile app and web interface that matches grass-roots activists—many newly politicized by Trump—with nearby candidates who need volunteer support.

With seed funding from Higher Ground Labs, a Chicago-based progressive technology accelerator, Kramer and Johnson hired a small staff of engineers and organizers, and then fanned out across Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia to connect with hundreds of resistance groups, small and large. Like many of the new political-technology startups, MobilizeAmerica is focusing first on Virginia, the only battleground state with elections in 2017, and one that also approximates the larger country, with urban and rural areas and a fast-growing immigrant population. MobilizeAmerica chose to focus on a dozen House of Delegate races—including Roem’s.

If Virginia is a microcosm of America, then the 13th District race between Roem and the 13-term GOP incumbent, Bob Marshall, is like the 2016 presidential election glimpsed in a fun-house mirror: Everything is exaggerated even further. Roem grew up in the Northern Virginia district, working for nine years as a local political reporter and moonlighting as a singer in a heavy-metal band. She began her gender transition in 2013. Trump’s victory pushed her into electoral politics. “What the election taught me,” Roem says drily, a rainbow scarf in her hair, “is that there is literally nothing in my background that’s disqualifying. That bar is gone.” (Even in a race bursting with sociocultural significance, Roem’s campaign pitch is a hyperlocal focus on alleviated traffic congestion along Route 28, the district’s main thoroughfare. “Traffic hates everyone,” she notes.)

Her opponent, Marshall, is a kind of ur-Trump, who refuses to debate Roem or call her by her preferred gender pronoun. Marshall is best known for unsuccessfully pushing a state “bathroom bill” to dictate which restrooms transgender people can use in public buildings. Last week, his Republican backers sent out a campaign flier reminding voters that Roem was “born male.” But Marshall is falling out of step with his district, which is increasingly composed of highly educated voters and went for Clinton by 14 points. David Wasserman of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report calls the race a “toss-up” and a harbinger of national political sentiment heading into 2018.

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Roem, in other words, is exactly the sort of candidate Democrats must find a way to push to victory. To boost her volunteer network and raise awareness of the election, MobilizeAmerica had gotten Arcade Fire’s Will Butler to livestream a pre-concert interview with Roem on the band’s Facebook page. “Local politics is a matter of quality of life and an issue of life and death,” Butler, wearing a “Butler-Roem” campaign button, told the 150,000 fans who tuned in. Trump “has treated a lot of people like garbage. So let’s get our shit together and help the people who need it the most.” 

Butler asked fans to text “MOBILIZE” to a special number if they could volunteer, a request he repeated at a late-night afterparty at a D.C. club, to which Arcade Fire had invited several hundred local friends. Johnson described these actions as “an engagement funnel” to pull motivated locals into a MobilizeAmerica list. The next morning, they were sent a video from Butler thanking them and asking them to join a recruitment effort. “Anger at Trump is important for convening volunteers,” Johnson says. “But it doesn’t necessarily move voters. They’re moved by local issues, such as Danica’s traffic campaign. Our job is to build a bridge that connects one to the other.”

On Nov. 7, Virginia’s elections will serve as a testing ground for MobilizeAmerica and dozens of similar efforts, with the goal of improving Democratic turnout next year. The vital question for Democrats is this: Can they harness the energy of the resistance and steer its members to the ballot box in 2018? Control of Congress, and the future of Trump’s presidency, hangs in the balance.

One reason Democrats struggle to turn out voters in down-ballot races is that the cutting-edge technology they’ve developed since Barack Obama’s rise has mostly been housed inside presidential campaigns. When the campaign ends, the tools vanish. Four years later, the process repeats. “Our reputation as Democrats is that we invest in technology, and that’s true,” says Betsy Hoover, a partner at Higher Ground Labs, who directed digital organizing for Obama’s 2012 campaign. “But the way we do that is really inefficient. We invest a ton of money inside a presidential campaign, which requires hard-dollar campaign donations that are difficult to raise and sustain. And then we build the same thing over and over. Down-ballot races never really benefit.”

After Trump’s victory, Hoover and two partners, staked to $3 million by Reid Hoffman and other Democratic donors, founded Higher Ground to provide mentorship and early-stage investment in politically focused tech startups. They hoped to foster an ecosystem outside of national campaigns and focus on state and local races, which often lack the specialized personnel and budget to make use of technology built for presidential races. 

“Where most people who invest in companies are looking for a monetary return, they’re looking first and foremost for a political return,” says Steve Spinner, the chief executive officer of RevUp, a fundraising company that grew out of his experience as a tech adviser and top fundraiser for Obama’s campaigns.

Over the summer, Higher Ground invested in 11 companies, many of them focused on reaching voters through mobile technology and social media. Field organizers Shola Farber, 27, and Michael Luciani, 25, who worked in Michigan for Clinton’s campaign, say this is important because two groups Democrats struggle to activate—young people and minorities—are more transient than others, making them harder to reach, since they often don’t own a landline telephone or pay for cable television.

Trump’s election prompted them, too, to leave their jobs and found the Tuesday Company, another HGL startup working in Virginia that’s developing “digital door-knocking” technology. While working for Clinton, Farber could see that the standard voter contact methods of door knocking, phone banking, and TV ads were not reaching many millennials. “When we talk to people via Facebook or text, they often don’t know there’s an election,” she says. A Tufts University poll taken a month before the 2016 election found that just 30 percent of millennials had been contacted by a campaign. “That’s a figure that haunts us,” says Luciani. 

Tuesday’s technology aims to extend field organizing’s best practices into the digital realm. “The one thing Democrats absolutely excel at is volunteers,” says Farber. “Our system uses a bottom-up approach to built a grass-roots volunteer network among voters who aren’t being reached by traditional Democrat efforts.” Tuesday’s app, Team, allows users to share campaign content with their social network. When friends “like” or comment on a video, meme, or GIF, Tuesday learns what issues excite them and can then encourage friend-to-friend outreach. Roem’s campaign is using the technology to connect with people whose doors are harder to knock on, either because they live in private buildings, gated communities, or rural areas difficult to canvass. 

Reaching voters through Facebook is particularly urgent, Luciani adds, because Trump’s campaign used the platform to send “dark posts” with negative messages to blacks and millennials to weaken their support for Clinton. “The same people that they don’t want to vote are the people we do want to vote,” he says.

Senior Clinton officials who have studied the reasons for her loss say these startup efforts are vital to reversing the party’s electoral doldrums. “In the past it’s been hard to lure the brightest young minds in tech into the world of campaign politics,” says Brian Fallon, a top Clinton campaign adviser. “We’ve still only really scratched the surface of social media platforms’ potential to make voter persuasion more effective, targeting more precise, and organizing more efficient. The coming midterms and even the down-ballot races [in Virginia] will give us the chance to experiment with new technologies.”

Unlike Silicon Valley startups, these enterprises offer little money or glamour for their young founders. Since leaving her job, Farber has spent nine months in couch-surfing transience as she works to launch the Tuesday Company. “There’s a generational aspect to many of these startups,” says Hoover, “a lot of energy and dedication, a lot of founders’ stories tied to the day after the election. Many of them pivoted, changed careers, or changed focus based on that moment. People are woke.”

On a Tuesday evening just before Halloween, the staff of MobilizeAmerica and a small crowd of volunteers are gathered in a downtown Washington loft for a weekly text-banking session, an update on the phone banks long employed by campaigns to contact voters. The scene looks oddly familiar, though more suited to a dormitory common room than an old-fashioned political campaign. Dozens of millennials are sprawled in comfortable chairs and couches amid towering stacks of pizza boxes and a few empty beer bottles, all peering intently at their laptops and iPhones. The purpose of all this virtual activity, however, is to generate real-world engagement that will lead to votes. 

“Texting is a more social form of recruitment,” says Yasmin Radjy, 30, MobilizeAmerica’s Virginia state director. “You hang out, you meet people, eat pizza, drink beer, and play music—all things you can’t do when you’re phone banking.” Radjy and other organizers have found it’s also more effective for reaching people. Unlike a phone call, a text message isn’t nearly so intrusive and allows people to answer at their leisure—and many do. “People are happier to engage by text than by phone,” she says, adding with a shrug, “It’s a level of intimacy that’s kind of crazy. But that’s how we communicate with our friends. Calling would be weird.”

On this night, Radjy and her cohorts are recruiting volunteers to Virginia from a list compiled by Do the Most Good, a resistance group in Montgomery County, Md., that’s partnered with MobilizeAmerica. They’re using a computer-based texting system designed by yet another HGL startup, Ground Game, which was founded by a former Clinton staffer.

One early discovery from the push into new technologies is that volunteers recruited by text are far more likely to follow through on their commitments. During the Clinton campaign, the “flake rate” among people who agreed by phone to volunteer ran as high as 90 percent. But Radjy says that those reached by text sign up for jobs and follow through, particularly when they’re members of enthusiastic resistance groups. “The conversion rate of SMS has been incredible,” she says. “Now, they’re showing up in higher numbers and volunteering.”

On weekends, these volunteers carpool or bus to the dozen Virginia districts MobilizeAmerica has targeted, to knock on doors and have the face-to-face conversations that are still the most reliable way of getting people to vote. As Radjy steps over scarecrows and Halloween pumpkins to canvass a row of townhouses in Gainesville on behalf of Roem, she ticks through a long list of resistance groups that have joined the effort, many of them formed in reaction to Trump.

It will take an enormous turnout for Democrats to flip the Virginia House of Delegates, which Republicans control 66-34. As polls tightened in recent weeks, even holding onto the governorship is no sure thing. 

Regardless of outcome, Johnson and his peers are convinced Virginia will leave Democrats better prepared to compete and win next year. “We have a better lens into the grass roots than almost anyone—the volunteers, the delegates, and all the local groups,” he says. “When we leave Virginia, we’ll know what works, how it works, and how it can work better—and all that will be brought to bear on the midterm elections.”