McElwee is tall—6 foot 2—with pale skin and the wardrobe of your typical hipster Millennial, including trendy glasses and snapback hats. Over the past six months, he’s sent me dozens of texts and emails airily predicting the outcomes of primary races, touting the accuracy of his polling, and dropping f-bombs and movie references like a good-natured, if somewhat self-satisfied, frat bro. “Weak tea,” he texted me simply, when I asked him to respond to some criticism. “Yeah, I’m good at politics,” he replied when I mentioned his accurate prediction in 2018 that Representative Eliot Engel of New York would be unseated in 2020. With this tendency toward smug irreverence, McElwee might seem like a good fit for the so-called Dirtbag Left, the contingent of pundits who have attracted fans by advocating for left-wing ideas using dark humor and dank memes. But that’s never really been his crowd.
McElwee has the zeal of a convert because he is one. After college, he started his career as an intern at the libertarian Reason Foundation and the Fox Business Network, but quickly became disillusioned with conservative politics. In 2014, he took a data-analyst job at Demos, and four years later, started Data for Progress as a side project, drawing on publicly available data to evaluate and explain the popularity of progressive policies. His firm partnered with YouGov to do polling on reparations, universal basic income, the Green New Deal, abolishing ICE—the gamut. They also tested progressive arguments for and Republican arguments against the policies, to show more nuanced results.
“The Venn diagram of people with a pretty radical analysis [of politics] who are devoted to operational electoral politics is pretty small,” Chris Hayes, the progressive commentator and MSNBC host, told me. McElwee “is in that space.”
Today, Data for Progress is a fully fledged company with 10 employees—it’s part polling firm (it does its own surveys now), part think tank, and part activist group. Its clients fall along a spectrum of progressive thought, from Sanders and Warren to the Sierra Club. In July, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer blogged on the firm’s website in support of extending the $600 unemployment expansion.
McElwee describes his first year running the operation, in 2018, as “the first stage of Sean.” He became Twitter-famous in progressive circles, amassing many thousands of followers, in part, by encouraging leftists to challenge the Democratic establishment. Ocasio-Cortez adopted his #AbolishICE mantra in the lead-up to the midterm elections. Politico Magazine ranked him on its 2018 list of the 50 most influential thinkers in politics. That year, he was quoted as envisioning a socialist politics that “strives for a radical flattening of the global income distribution.”
Read: What ‘Abolish ICE’ actually means