Late last spring, inspired to action by what he was hearing from a renegade Democratic candidate named Bernie Sanders, Jon Hughes began building a website. Hughes, then a 29-year-old father in southern Oregon, didn’t have any connection to the Sanders campaign; in fact, the last presidential candidate he’d been interested in was Ron Paul back in 2012. But he knew how to code and built a page that does a very simple but important job: You click on your location, and it tells you where and when to vote in the Democratic primary or caucus. It launched in June…
Late last spring, inspired to action by what he was hearing from a renegade Democratic candidate named Bernie Sanders, Jon Hughes began building a website. Hughes, then a 29-year-old father in southern Oregon, didn’t have any connection to the Sanders campaign; in fact, the last presidential candidate he’d been interested in was Ron Paul back in 2012. But he knew how to code and built a page that does a very simple but important job: You click on your location, and it tells you where and when to vote in the Democratic primary or caucus. It launched in June.
The site is just one of the dozens of websites, tools and apps built by coders lining up behind Bernie Sanders, often people—like Hughes— with no affiliation to the campaign at all. Behind Sanders’ astonishing success in the primaries so far stands a coterie of more than 1,000 volunteer techies pumping out innovations like this at a rate of about one new app a week.
“It’s been a great resource for us,” said Kenneth Pennington, the Sanders campaign’s digital director and one of several officials who regularly keep in touch with the tech volunteers. “It speaks to the ethos of the entire campaign. The volunteers are running the ship here.”
“I’ve heard of superPACs building crappier websites with full-time staff for $1 [million] to $2 million,” said Daniela Perdomo, the 30-year old tech volunteer who spearheaded the building of feelthebern.org during more than five weeks of all-night shifts from her Brooklyn home not far from Hillary Clinton’s campaign headquarters.
The contrast with Sanders’ Democratic challenger, Hillary Clinton, couldn’t be more stark. Her operation is led in part by former Google executive Stephanie Hannon and an army of digital hands who honed their online skills on Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns or elsewhere in the Democratic advocacy power structure. But Clinton’s tech innovators are hobbled, several Democratic and GOP tech experts said in interviews, by a hierarchical management structure that is seen as stifling new projects, or at least requiring them to win multiple layers of sign-offs before they go live.
“The Hillary team is about a top-down approach that believes you hire and pay the best résumés,” said one Democratic source. “That works as a business model, but when the ultimate standard of success is measured by people voting, that model is a clear second place to an organic people-powered approach.”
Team Clinton, fretful about revealing innovations to its competition, has been coy about publicly showing off big new campaign tech toys. “Our campaign is focused on building the tools and technology that helps us raise more grass-roots donations, organize more volunteers, reach more persuadable voters and optimize everything we do, whether or not it drives headlines,” Clinton campaign spokesman Jesse Ferguson wrote in an email.
The one thing the Clinton campaign has hyped this cycle was a smartphone app to help precinct captains navigate Iowa’s complex caucuses in real time to prevent Martin O’Malley’s backers from taking Sanders’ side, but that was hardly a game-changer. Staffers for Sanders and O’Malley said the two campaigns had their own versions of the technology, too, and the concept existed in more analog spreadsheet form going back to the 2004 presidential cycle.
Said Vincent Harris, who ran digital operations for Rand Paul’s now-defunct presidential campaign: “Hillary's 1996-esque campaign seems to be stuck in the mud on the digital side.”
This is a two-way street, too. Sanders volunteers often hear from the campaign about things it needs. And the campaign can use its volunteers’ free labor force like a spare IT department. For example, one of Sanders’ top tech advisers last week logged into the volunteers’ Slack channel looking for people “who don’t mind doing a little work that is beneath them,” like processing data on potential supporters so volunteers can then make follow-up phone calls.
“You will be SAVING THE ELECTION FOR BERNIE! by keeping our voter contact program going,” the campaign adviser, Zack Exley, wrote.
On occasion, the volunteers have impressed so much they’ve even landed full-time jobs on the Sanders campaign. There’s Zach Schneider, a 23-year-old who graduated last May from Southern Illinois University and now has the title of technology director. The Carbondale, Illinois-based staffer counts among his accomplishments a credit-card swiping app that helped turn the initially disorganized T-shirt sales at Sanders’ public rallies into a practical list-building exercise. Also on board is Saikat Chakrabarti, a New York-based 30-year-old Harvard grad who has taken a leave of absence from his tech startup to write code for the campaign.
Flush with funds thanks to a record wave of small-dollar donations, including more than $1.5 million collected from its Reddit fans, Sanders’ Burlington, Vermont-based campaign is planning to soon announce more hires from inside its volunteer coder ranks. If they join the campaign, they would likely be seeing one another face to face for the first time: Sanders volunteers and staffers, spread out across the country, collaborate in their work online via Slack, the mass texting service called Hustle and old-fashioned email. Many of the people building the guts of the campaign’s tech tools said they have never met in person.
The dispersed nature of Sanders’ operation may be familiar in the tech world, but it’s a novelty in politics—a sharp contrast even from Obama’s 2012 technology effort, when Democrats didn’t have to deal with an open primary and could pour resources into prepping for the general election. One much-hyped prong of that effort included opening a campaign office in the San Francisco area so Silicon Valley workers could help in their spare time. This cycle, Rand Paul also tried to capture some of that mojo with his libertarian, save-the-Internet spirit: The Kentucky senator opened offices last year in San Francisco and Austin, Texas. Sanders has done none of that. “It was never a thought in my mind,” Pennington said.
The dispersion raises its own challenges, however. Legally speaking, campaign finance experts interviewed by POLITICO say they’re in the clear: So long as the Sanders volunteers are not being paid for their work by an outside entity, what they’re doing on behalf of their favored presidential campaign is perfectly fine. But the campaign faces hurdles making sure that all of its volunteer-driven ideas serve the ultimate purpose: winning the election. Many of the tools built for Bernie appear to overlap; not all of them are exactly ready to graduate from beta testing. One Democratic technology expert pointed to a Sanders volunteer-inspired app that doesn’t appear to distinguish which doors should get door knocks and which ones shouldn’t. “Which is a terrible idea,” said this source. “You shouldn’t canvass everybody.”
“It sounds like they’ve gotten some good stuff. It can also go totally sideways,” explained Catherine Bracy, a San Francisco-based techie who ran the Obama 2012 campaign offices in the Bay area. “I don’t want to say it’s a waste. Some of these tools may have a value on their own. But will they help Bernie Sanders be more effective and efficient? I think it’s an open question.”
Among the apps Bracy questioned were the “Bernie BNB” app and ride-sharing tools that are aimed at helping volunteers do their jobs and to get supporters to the polls. Both may sound handy, but she warned that any mishaps or negative incidents could blow up on Sanders, even if the apps come with fine print insisting they are not affiliated with the official campaign organization.
“Someone has to be accountable,” Bracy said. “This is the mentality of wild Silicon Valley. They build it without thinking through what the human level consequences might be.”
Users of the Bernie BNB app receive an automatic legal disclaimer informing them they have waived “any and all claims” against the Sanders campaign and groups associated with it. Justin Schulz, one of its developers, told POLITICO that no one vets potential hosts and guests to determine whether they really are who they say they are. “We do not make any guarantee about who is using the platform,” the 32-year-old New Yorker said. “That said, we have only received feedback about positive experiences with hosts and volunteers.”
It remains to be seen whether all the work that the Sanders volunteers and the tech tools they’ve helped create will make a difference in who wins this election—whether they’re more powerful as a campaign tool or a symbol of raw enthusiasm.
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