The Community Organizing Geeks Who Could Revolutionize Campaign Tech

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One was Mark Zuckerberg's Harvard roommate. The other went to Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. Together, Joe Green and Jim Gilliam want to democratize the most powerful Internet organizing tools.

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NationBuilder.com

The websites for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney look practically the same: sleek, snazzy, red-white-and-blue. But peel back a layer, and there's a difference -- the fundamental difference, in fact, between how Democrats and Republicans use technology.

Obama's site was custom-built starting in 2008 by the consulting firm Blue State Digital. It's a fully integrated platform for everything from fundraising to social networking -- the Rolls-Royce of campaign tech, complete with price tag. Romney's interface, on the other hand, didn't even originate with the campaign; it was based on a platform purchased off-the-shelf from a corporate customer-service vendor called Salesforce.com, then modified (also starting in 2008) to meet the needs of a political campaign.

In short, Team Obama has home-grown its tools, while Team Romney has bought commercial products and taped them together. But both approaches are labor-intensive and hugely expensive, and neither approach is really optimal. One requires devoting a big chunk of the campaign's energy to essentially functioning as a tech start-up; the other requires settling for off-the-shelf tools that don't have politics in their DNA.

Now, two visionary geeks want to change that.

Joe Green and Jim Gilliam, the founders of a new software platform called NationBuilder, envision a world where any campaign -- from local school board to issue-based protest movement, without regard to ideology -- could access the same versatile, inexpensive suite of software and instantly have at its fingertips the ability to connect with voters and donors online, a capacity that was supposed to reshape American politics in the age of the Internet, but has yet to be fully realized.

"For grassroots organizing, the biggest difference is in the smallest races."

Campaign-tech industry insiders agree that NationBuilder is a potential game-changer, though they caution that it's too soon to tell if the software will catch on as widely as its backers hope. "It's totally fair" for NationBuilder to view what they're up to as disruptive, said Clay Johnson, a Blue State Digital co-founder. While Blue State's software was designed to be the highest-end professional tool in the market, NationBuilder is more like the GarageBand of community organizing, opening up the possibility of a world where just about anyone is empowered to campaign like a presidential candidate, he said.

Scott Heiferman, CEO and co-founder of MeetUp, agrees that NationBuilder's potential goes beyond simply making campaigns more efficient. "This isn't just applying Salesforce's [customer-relationship management] mechanisms to movements," he said. "From the ground up, it asks how you engage people and then move them up the ladder of engagement. I haven't seen many other attempts to really solve the problems of the people or organizations who are super passionate around something."

To be sure, the idea that NationBuilder will singlehandedly revolutionize not just campaigns, but community activism at all levels, deserves some skepticism. (Available to the public since April 2011, the software, which charges users on a monthly basis, currently has about 700 subscribers.) But if anyone has the credentials to pull it off, it might be Green and Gilliam.

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As Mark Zuckerberg's roommate at Harvard, Joe Green was the sixth person to join Facebook. His interest in politics goes back to high school, when he ran successfully for local school board in California at age 17; he later worked as a field organizer on John Kerry's presidential campaign and started the Facebook activism app Causes.

Jim Gilliam started out on the other side of the cultural-political spectrum. A homeschooled evangelical Christian, he was born again at age 8 and went on to attend Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. After his politics turned leftward during the Bush administration, he teamed up with the activist director Robert Greenwald to co-found Brave New Films, the progressive movie-production company behind such features as Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism and Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price.

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In person, Green and Gilliam make an odd pair. Green is short and stubby, with bushy, chin-length brown hair and a blazer-and-jeans look, while Gilliam is a bald, pale, lanky six-foot-nine and favors tees and hoodies. They found each other when Green saw Gilliam's moving talk at the 2011 Personal Democracy Forum, "The Internet Is My Religion." It tells the story of how Gilliam, his life hanging by a thread after a recurrence of cancer, mobilized the Internet to help him get the double lung transplant he needed -- and, in the process, rediscovered his faith. "God is just what happens when humanity is connected," he said in the talk. "Humanity connected is God."

Humanity connected is also politics, in the community-organizing-based mindset of social-networking evangelists like Green, who studied organizing at Harvard with the grassroots trainer and guru Marshall Ganz. Organizing from the bottom up is all about getting ordinary citizens together around shared ideas and goals, then getting them to communicate with and recruit their friends, expanding the circle outward until a movement is born.

Despite Obama's emphasis on these techniques, community organizing is a model that works best not for presidential contenders but for the smallest campaigns, Green argues.

"Presidential campaigns have tons of field staff, but that's where it makes the least difference," he said. "It's largely decided in the air war. It's the most covered media event that exists." But you don't have to get very far down the ballot to hit races -- from judges to city council members to the board members of the Greater Los Angeles County Vector Control District, which oversees the city's mosquito-abatement efforts -- where voters are basing their choices on much less information. There are more than 500,000 elected officials in America, most of them nonpartisan no-names on boards like these.

"The biggest difference is in the smallest races" when it comes to grassroots organizing, Green said. "First, people have no preconceived notions about the candidates, so there's more ability to persuade. Second, you don't need to turn out that many votes to swing the outcome."

Alex Torpey is living proof of the potential to make a big impact in a small campaign. As a recent college graduate, he ran last year for mayor of South Orange, N. J., and agreed to test NationBuilder in his campaign as an "alpha client." Up against a sitting city councilwoman, he used the web to publish his platform, dubbed "Rethink Leadership" -- a call for fresh blood. NationBuilder helped Torpey's bare-bones campaign blast out emails, target voters, connect through social media and raise money online -- in the end, about $8,000. It was one one-thousandth of one percent of what Obama raised in 2008, but it was enough. "For a nonpartisan, municipal campaign, that allowed us to print literature, buy ads on Patch locally, and pay for NationBuilder," he said in an interview.

AlexTorpey.nb.jpgAlex Torpey's website

In the end, Torpey won by 14 votes, making him, at 23, the youngest mayor in New Jersey and the youngest mayor in the history of South Orange (population 16,000). Torpey doesn't credit NationBuilder alone for his success, and he emphasizes the continued importance of knocking on doors and making phone calls. But the software helped give him the tools to create his own political organization outside the infrastructure available to the entrenched forces of incumbency and the establishment.

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Molly Ball and Nancy Scola

Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic. Nancy Scola is an Atlantic correspondent based in New York City, whose work focuses on the intersections of politics and technology.

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