Higher Ground Labs: A Way to Build Tech That Helps Democrats Win
Or: “Next time, let’s bring a battle droid to the knife fight.”
As we launch Higher Ground Labs, we figured it might be useful to set out our thesis. Here’s why we think our approach — investing in and actively accelerating for-profit startups that build tools, data, analytics, and other technologies for Democratic campaigns — can help progressives win new majorities up and down the ballot.
In the decade before 2016, national Democrats benefitted from a key competitive advantage: We had better campaign tech. Thanks to huge investments and an ability to attract consistently stronger talent, Democrats built superior systems for voter identification, targeting and outreach that gave our presidential nominee a meaningful competitive advantage.
In 2016, it became clear that we’ve lost our edge. Worse, we realized that at the state and local level, Democrats are now getting downright crushed in tech and data resources. While Hillary Clinton’s campaign hired some incredible technologists who built impressive national-scale tools and infrastructure, the Republicans outfoxed us on, e.g., social media and supporter self-organizing. Meanwhile, Democratic candidates at the state and local level struggled to make effective use of often second-rate products.
Republicans have achieved significant advantages in tools, data, platforms and infrastructure by investing in software custom-built for usability in sub-national campaigns, and by allied cause organizations — things like sophisticated voter targeting services that can easily be shared across state and local races, multidimensional clustering and sentiment analysis platforms that translate social media insights into messaging and organizing actions, psychographic profiling (which, even when you wade through the cloud of post-election baloney, can actually be very helpful), and a host of other new and optimized capabilities. The funding for much of this bottom-up effort came from outside the Republican Party, thanks to wealthy patrons like the Koch and Mercer families.
On the Democratic side, the state of play is the opposite. We have relied on our Presidential campaigns to incubate new campaign technologies, making meager investments in tech specifically aimed elsewhere. Every four years, a new billion-dollar startup recruits brilliant teams that custom-build new tech for the Presidential campaign. Their work is generally specific to the needs of a national-scale Presidential campaign, and is born and then buried in that single cycle. Because the campaigns don’t persist, and because the broader tech environment changes relentlessly between elections, our Presidential campaigns build from scratch updated solutions to the same problems every 4 years. As Presidential campaigns vacuum up most of the money and much of the best talent, down ballot campaigns get very little attention in the form of tech and tools. Most state parties, local Democratic campaigns, and activist organizations — if they are using tech at all — confront a marketplace of stale and clunky tools, built on old platforms, not really optimized for the current online and media environments, or the demands of their electorates.
This cycle makes sustained innovation almost impossible. Democratic candidates should have awesome, simple, intuitive, powerful, easy-to-set-up, easy-to-integrate, insight-generating, and well-supported technology tools that help them understand their districts, reach and persuade voters, empower volunteers, and foster sturdy relationships over time.
We should be using the time between election cycles to create, test and innovate — based on the experiences of the previous cycle and anticipation of where broader media and consumer technology is heading. All of our campaigns should have best-in-class technology options that just work, letting candidates focus their energy on the voter interactions that win campaigns.
We have to change the way we build Democratic campaign tech, and we need new vehicles to supply the capital, coaching, networks, and support that can power new, more nimble approaches. That’s the idea behind Higher Ground Labs.
We don’t think we have some unique and magical insight. Nor do we think tech tools alone can win elections. Rather, we think we’ve identified a significant area of competitive disadvantage that plagues progressive campaigns, and we think we have a solid model to support for-profit tech startups that can help Democrats at every level regain an edge.
Progressives win elections when more people participate. Many factors drive electoral participation — compelling candidates, simple voter registration procedures, robust community organizing, strong civic institutions, clear policy agendas, powerful and persuasive narratives, rigorous voter protection — but none of these is effective for Democrats unless the candidate has the ability to connect with the voters she has to persuade and mobilize. If we’re going to get ahead of the Republican machine, we need to focus on building A-grade technology that gives our campaigns an advantage in understanding, reaching, and building substantial and lasting two-way relationships with increasingly digital electorates.
There are many donors and investors searching for newer technology and better techniques to power campaigns to do that. But there have been few dedicated, long-horizon actors with the committed capital, expertise, and networks of experienced collaborators that can help entrepreneurs deliver the powerful-but-easy-to-use capabilities our parties, candidates and allies need to activate supporters and persuade constituents. Without them, our candidates are competing at a disadvantage. Good tech alone cannot win elections, but bad tech can lose them.
Higher Ground Labs is a new company with capital ready to invest in great early-stage startups and entrepreneurs pursuing new solutions in campaign tech. We’re ready to tackle the progressive tech gap by fostering a lively startup ecosystem that brings together investment capital, skilled technologists, expert campaigners, experienced business coaches, and clueful support systems. We are a team of Obama campaign and startup veterans with deep experience in deploying political, social, media, and data-driven technologies. Our goal is to find and foster innovative, effective campaign tech that help Democrats win elections and progressives win policy fights.
We are looking to support products and services than can improve campaign management, field engagement, polling and message testing, voter targeting, electorate modeling, volunteer self-organizing, voter protection, opposition research, effective fundraising, and so on. When we find great ideas, stellar entrepreneurs, and committed teams, we will invest and work alongside the team to advance their odds of success. For those not yet ready with a working product, we have a fellowship program for people to dedicate time and energy to fleshing out their ideas. For those looking to contribute in other ways, we organize regular convenings for networking, discussion, exploration, and understanding.
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