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.
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.
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."