Six years later, an explosion in their New Haven duplex on election night (of all nights) left Bannon's mother with lasting injuries that made engaging in politics difficult. "I realized that there were millions of people who couldn't do anything about it," Bannon says. "I dedicated myself to being their proxies." In the years since, Bannon has churned through campaigns, taking a leave of absence from Harvard in 2006 for Ned Lamont's bid to unseat Lieberman, and putting in time for Obama in 2008 and Alan Khazei's Senate campaign in 2009. Along the way, he says, "I was always frustrated with the tech." Bad systems meant wasting the efforts of volunteers, what he calls one of the more "beautiful" parts of the campaign life. He's set himself on building a solution.
But Amicus is still in its early stages. On raw numbers, "it wasn't a barnstormer" at roll-out says James Servino, an online organizer with HRC. Amicus loses a lot of potential allies who come over the transom and don't engage right away, Bannon concedes, adding that increasing the platform's stickiness tops their to-do list. Organizers say that they would have liked to have seen more people pick up the phone. HRC puts the number of direct calls through Amicus at 7,000; the vote in Washington State was won by 228,000 votes. But organizers see in this early deployment signs of success.
Funders, too, see a lot to like in Amicus. A week after the election, the company announced it had completed a round of funding worth $3.2 million. Amicus, says Bannon, is looking to increase its staff of seven, adding a data scientist as soon as possible. It would be ideal to have someone schooled in sociology, too, who might help them figure out not only who should be asked to engage in political action, but the best person in their social graph to prod them to make that leap. (Amicus is non-partisan and the platform generally open, "but if you're trying to take away rights," says Bannon, "we won't work with you.") The company is also considering taking more seriously something in which they've only been dabbling: anonymous modeling. "If you call a 32-year-old woman at 3 p.m. on a Thursday and ask her for $30 and she says 'no,'" says Bannon, "we capture that." It's valuable data that gets poured into a growing cache that could someday allow them to know that a woman of that age and job status should be called after working hours and asked for 20 bucks instead.
Also important: the psychology of volunteers themselves. The vision driving Amicus is one of creating a more robust version of the campaign experience -- more immediate, more knowing. But some things are lost in the digital conversion, like the the camaraderie that nudges volunteers towards picking up the phone at an in-person phone bank. To help solve that, volunteers who rack up participation points and thus moved up levels were rewarded with both virtual goods, like Facebook badges, and real goods, like stickers, T-shirts, and drawstring bags.
The gamification proved serious business. "People were willing to write an angry email when they didn't get their points," says Bannon, "which is a pretty good sign it works." They have been talking to Gerber, the political scientist, about adding in subtle encouragements like, perhaps, bumping an old buddy to the top of a volunteers call list after a few discouraging interactions with voters closer to the edges of their networks. And there are also more obvious affirmations on deck. As part of a planned redesign, says Bannon, "it's going to tell you when someone has just been hung up on five times in a row and needs a high five." (A virtual one, of course.)
"People were willing to write an angry email when they didn't get their points," says Bannon, "which is a pretty good sign it works."
Amicus fits comfortably into a bigger, counterintuitive trend in digital politics. In a recent post-campaign debrief, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina argued that "what campaigns are evolving into, actually, in many ways is a return to the past." Much of the advanced tech the campaign deployed, said Messina, succeeded in making the experience of door-to-door campaigning less tedious and more efficient. The ambition of a surprising amount of political technologies is to move away from the cacophony of political TV ads and tweets and Facebook wall posts -- and back to actual conversations between actual humans. Amicus connects users via social media but discourages its use in practice; political tweets and posts, says Bannon, come across as too "spammy."
Of course, this is a new kind of conversation where you have far more knowledge about your neighbor at your fingertips than you did before. Is that creepy? Is it too creepy? Logging onto Amicus and seeing even just your own name in the voter file can be unsettling. Public information is one thing, but this is public public, combined with all that social-media data that wasn't meant to mean anything. Bannon admits there is often a "whoa" moment. You pick up the phone, dial the number on the voter file, and say, "Hey, you went to college with my step-brother, and we hung out that one time at the Brickskeller your junior year. How do you feel about marriage equality?" In some ways, Amicus engineers around it, pretending to know less than it does by, for example, hiding street numbers. But organizers say they're riding a technological wave where people seem to get over their squeamishness if they judge that they're trading privacy for the chance to make a stronger social connection.