Want to win in 2020?

There’s an app for that.

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After the Iowa caucus debacle, apps don’t have the best rep in the Democratic party. But the party needs to retool and modernize its thinking. Here’s why:

A mobile cross-platform elections app could be pivotal to the Democrats’ success on November 3. But don’t go checking Google Play or the App Store just yet. Frito-Lay has an app. McDonald’s has an app. My bank and my insurance company both have apps. So why has neither national party invested in creating one?

Mockup for a hypothetical elections app

In modern elections, technology and storytelling define the game. A mediocre candidate supported by great technology can trounce an opponent who is stronger in every other respect. Why? Because technology lets the candidate tell their story to more people, more effectively, at lower cost.

In 2016, something unprecedented happened. For the first time, Republicans took the technological high ground from Democrats — who had pioneered online fundraising and made innovative use of social media in past elections. Operatives at Cambridge Analytica and elsewhere used Facebook to divide and conquer, spreading dissent between Democratic constituencies and demoralizing voters.

Even without dirty tricks, Facebook and Twitter are dangerous to rely upon, because of the high cost of reaching voters. At present it costs about $11 to reach 1,000 Facebook users Through online advertising. That means if you want to reach 10 million loyal Democrats with 10 news blasts per week, you’re spending over a million dollars each week. If you’re a Congressional candidate seeking online donations and you have a conversion rate of .1% (considered high for online advertising) and an average donation of $20, you are barely breaking even. Online email campaigns also carry a price tag, and these messages often end up in spam.

Only half of Americans get their news from TV. Today, 81% of Americans own a smartphone. Yet the political parties have not kept pace with this shift.

Many people assume the principal value of a mobile elections app lies in canvassing. It’s true that such a tool would be extremely useful for GOTV, coordinating volunteers, and phone banking. However, the greatest value of a mass audience mobile app in the age of Internet is as a way to distribute news, videos, appeals for fundraising, and event announcements at zero cost. Suddenly you own the playing field instead of having to lease it from a giant corporation!

  • In-app messages can still be shared easily across social media.
  • The probability of news items “going viral” is higher.
  • One-click donations for fundraising.
  • Live and on-demand video streaming.
  • “Push” notifications and alerts keep the campaign front and center for voters.
  • Augmented reality turns yard signs and bumper stickers into information portals.
  • Analytics, metrics, and reporting are better and more accurate than ever before.

Best of all, the app has the potential to take back the news cycle and unify voters, by sharing a consistent message in place of misinformation and competing narratives.

In 2020, a mobile app could do for the nominee and Congress what radio did for FDR and television did for JFK. Not everyone likes to download extra software for their smartphones, but modern platforms like React Native make it easy to share the same code base across iPhone, Android, tablet, and web browsers.

Soon, the question for campaigns might be what to do with all the money saved from online advertising. What would it look like if campaigns began hiring unemployed workers ? Imagine the headlines.

Remember…

Not all apps are created equal. Neither are all service providers. Do your due diligence. Look for longevity, customer list, and track record. Ask hard questions about the testing plan.

Privacy, security, and usability are key. An app that annoys users will simply get deleted. I know of many individuals who have left Facebook in the past two years because of concerns around privacy and security.

Apps represent an enormous opportunity for either party. They could level the technological playing field or further cement the Republicans’ edge. Apps are mainstream technology, used by large corporations and national brands every day. The Democrats’ strategic advantage has always been their large and active base. In an era when voters are busy working multiple jobs and caring for children and elders, an app provides a way to to reach that base and keep them engaged.

We are living in the age of the smartphone, not the television. We can’t afford to assume that what has worked in the past will simply work again. An app is the Democrats’ best hope to heal past divisions, then mobilize and unify for November.

Tess Gadwa is the founder of Lotus.fm, an online data visualization and music discovery startup. In 2011 she founded Yes Exactly, Inc., a web services agency specializing in e-commerce, custom web development, and managed hosting. Follow her on Twitter at @thematizer.

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Product Architect at Lotus.fm, a startup dedicated to creating better user experiences for data driven applications.