Tech workers use corporate advertising tricks to turn out Democratic voters (2024)

In 2017, a handful of disaffected Silicon Valley founders launched a start-up to use their internet skills to elect Democrats. They created a network of digital-savvy volunteers who would eventually advise hundreds of statehouse candidates on how to modernize their digital footprint.

Now, the group, Tech for Campaigns, is expanding on those efforts, using the tools of digital advertising to register Democratic-leaning people to vote. A social media ad blitz — honed through the performance testing strategies often used by corporate advertisers — will reach voters in swing states across the country, including Arizona, Michigan, North Carolina, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin to persuade them to vote early or by mail.

Tech for Campaigns emerged out of its founders’ concern that Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election victory was partially due to his social media strategy. But the group, which counts OpenAI’s Sam Altman, Netflix co-CEO Greg Peters and former senior Meta executives as past donors, argues that targeting unlikely voters will be key to defending Democratic majorities in statehouse chambers.

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“The close races are decided by voter turnout,” Tech for Campaigns co-founder Jessica Alter said in an interview. “While we’re all for sending mail and knocking doors, we know that we need a different approach to get a different outcome.”

The new push arrives at a politically perilous time for Democrats, as President Biden lags in the polls. Meanwhile, Republicans are investing in efforts to persuade people to vote by mail even as Trump questions the process.

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“In a state that’s as close as Wisconsin, sporadic voters are the whole game,” said Josh Henderson, senior director of paid media for A Better Wisconsin Together Political Fund, which works with Tech for Campaigns.

Registering a new voter “is usually cheaper” than influencing someone’s vote, he added.

Alter, Peter Kazanjy and Ian Ferguson, all tech founders, started the group after the 2016 presidential election. Upset over Trump’s win, the entrepreneurs sent around a Google doc to their friends asking them if they wanted to lend expertise rather than money to help Democrats win elections. Hundreds said yes.

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“We brought this tech founder mind-set to it,” Alter said. “We really wanted to not just sit and complain and yell at people who already agreed with us on social media, but actually tried to find some solutions.”

The group worked with more than a dozen campaigns in Virginia in 2017. In the 2024 cycle, the group is helping campaigns in eight states, where it hopes to flip or defend chamber-level majorities for Democrats, and five red states it aims to flip over the coming decade.

Its backers argue the group’s main value is helping campaigns use data-tested digital marketing strategies at a time when the political world lags behind corporate America in its marketing strategy. In 2022, campaigns allocated about 28% of their advertising budgets on digital ads, while commercial advertisers allocated 72% of their spending to digital, according to a report by Tech for Campaigns.

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Rob Goldman, a former Facebook advertising executive and a financial backer of Tech for Campaigns, said that when he talked with candidates and political operatives in 2019, they described old-school messaging strategies, focusing on messages rather than specific outcomes.

Political experts would tell him “if we tell the voters about this position, they’ll change their mind on candidate Y,” Goldman said. “That may be true. That may not be true. It’s hard to know if your ad could make them change their mind … You don’t have something simple, like did someone request a ballot? Yes or no?”

Since 2020, Tech for Campaigns has tested more than 500 different messages across the country. The ads often encourage users to visit a website walking them through the voter registration process in their state. The ad campaigns have encouraged more than 500,000 people to vote by mail — and those who have signed up are twice as likely to be under 35, non-White, or female. A quarter of them don’t have cellphones in the official voter files, according to the group.

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They’ve also recruited micro-influencers to post videos that the organization then pays to boost on social media to users who are Democrat-leaning and might not vote. In 2023, the group found that influencer ads in the Wisconsin Supreme Court race had a 3.4x higher engagement rate than ordinary ads and boosted sign-ups among people of color by 25%. This year, the group plans to spend up to $15 million on its voter turnout program.

This year, the group is planning to test whether disclosing that artificial intelligence helped design an ad impacts its efficacy, as well as how artificial intelligence can be used to answer would-be voters’ questions.

The results of those experiments may come in handy this summer as Tech for Campaigns faces its next big test: getting people to the polls.

“One of the biggest reasons people don’t vote, if not the biggest, actually, is that it’s just too hard,” Alter said. “Let’s make sure they vote.”

Tech workers use corporate advertising tricks to turn out Democratic voters (2024)
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