Los Angeles mayoral candidate Wendy Greuel isn't using it, but candidates Eric Garcetti and Emanuel Pleitez are. So are five of 12 candidates vying for City Council District 13, and half the candidates running to replace Councilman Bill Rosendahl on March 5. Eric Swalwell, 32, used it to beat 20-term California congressman Pete Stark, and after the Scottish National Party used it, it saw its best election in 77 years.
Since 2008, the media has insisted that using technology to sort vast voter data is key to winning in the Obama era. But an average shmo running for school board can't spare the cash to build out a database, track tweets, log contacts with potential voters and decide who's got the influence to throw a rip-roaring fundraiser. Now, NationBuilder, a hip downtown L.A. startup, has exploded onto the scene:
NationBuilder's potentially revolutionary tools help political campaigns quickly and efficiently build a website, accept donations and manage highly customized inventories of potential constituents and donors for as little as $19 a month, depending on how many people are in the database (called a “nation.”)
After its launch by founder Jim Gilliam in April 2011, NationBuilder grew from 30 clients to 400 in less than a year. Last March, it picked up $6.25 million in funding from Silicon Valley bigwigs like venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz and Napster founder/Justin Timberlake muse Sean Parker. By the end of 2012, it was handling over 1,500 individual “nations.”
The NationBuilder tools allow campaign teams to categorize and search their potential voters and campaign contributors by age, geography and voting history — then further tag people based on events they attend, how they know the candidate, issues they care about, etc.
Once cataloged, a “nation's” detailed, searchable catalog of information can also be exported to help other like-minded local candidates.
Before NationBuilder, CEO/founder Gilliam worked on act.ly, a Twitter petition tool that predated the success of Change.org; GovLuv, a site that provided citizens with the names and Twitter handles of local legislators; and Brave New Films, a non-profit production company started by Robert Greenwald that made documentaries criticizing conservative stalwarts such as John McCain and Fox News.
NationBuilder itself is nonpartisan. It claims to not keep track of how many Democratic and Republican candidates use its software, probably to avoid alienating potential customers.
The startup opened offices in Pershing Square in downtown L.A. in early 2012 but soon outgrew its suite and took over a floor, ballooning to almost 50 employees and acquiring the signifiers of tech-world success: a ping pong table, a touch-screen coffee machine, dapper engineers in jeans working at ergonomic stand-up desks and bearded sales guys sitting on couches GChatting and working on MacBooks.
A visitor might notice a whiteboard listing the day's projects: “Phone Number Deletion” “Voter Match Key” and “Being Awesome.”
Although NationBuilder can help even a moderately tech-savvy campaign team, making advanced data-mining tools accessible to people who have never heard of Klout isn't always easy.
Customers can call for help, read online tutorials, watch training videos, and participate in daily hour-long live streams about best practices. But some simply use the tool to build a quick website — and forget to even connect their donation page to their campaign's bank account.
“People think there's like a magic wand,” says Vice President of Community Adriel Hampton. “We make it way more efficient, but you still have to do the work. Most people could do more.”
A few yokels don't even understand why NationBuilder wouldn't support Internet Explorer 6 (the current version is 10).
You may remember a video of Gilliam's Oprah-approved oration, “The Internet is My Religion,” when it bounced around the Interwebs in 2011, before we all got a headache from too many cloying TED talks.
Bald and gaunt, clutching his elbows on stage at the Personal Democracy Forum, Gilliam describes how his online activist friends helped him beat multiple rounds of cancer and find God by tapping the 21st century's unique potential for connectivity and cooperation.
Although NationBuilder also markets its services to non-profits, businesses and local governments, Gilliam's real goal is to empower the 509,000 elected officials in the United States to run more organized and effective campaigns and, in turn, make the political system more democratic.
NationBuilder offers qualified candidates access to a free, searchable database of nationwide voter data, streamlined from inconsistently formatted and occasionally expensive raw information once available only to insiders who knew where to look.
Used along with user-friendly database software, this data helps candidates expand the scope and the efficiency of front-porch canvassing and phone banking.
Hampton, a former City Hall reporter and passionate supporter of the Gov 2.0 community, which seeks to use social networking innovations of the early aughts to improve democracy, was the first person to announce his run for Congress over Twitter, in 2009. His campaign faltered, but Hampton says he would have lost even if he'd had NationBuilder.
Now, Hampton is happy to help others get voters moving. He gets particularly gleeful when recounting how the Scottish National campaign's success with NationBuilder inspired the Scottish Independence Party to sign up for the service as well.
“Talk about nation building!” Hampton exclaims. “They're actually trying to split off into an independent nation.”