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The role of presidential campaign technology in 2020: Part One

The 2020 Presidential Primaries will be a competition bounded by scarcity. More campaigns mean fewer available staff, fewer dollars, fewer volunteers, and fewer voters. A winning campaign will just have to do more with less.

Smart technology decisions can empower under-resourced campaigns. Higher Ground Labs has put careful thought into how early Presidential campaign organizations should approach their technology decisions. With the help of HGL Advisors Steph Hannon (CTO, Hillary for America), Derek Parham (Deputy CTO, Hillary for America) and Madeline Twomey (Obama for America), our team wants to share what we’ve learned building out a campaign’s early tech stack and what we can expect from the 2020 campaigns.

Team: Presidential campaigns must recruit and build a smart tech team early on. This is essential to procuring technology that can help you implement your strategy. HFA CTO Steph Hannon was hired in April of 2015, months after the campaign had already hired scores of field and finance staff. That was too late. Campaign staff preferences for tools must be understood and negotiated early-on with a technical understanding of what platforms and tools will scale well and integrate with the needs of a national campaign. The tension between tools you already know and tools you oughta know is a constant one. The right balance can be met when operatives –especially those from the digital team– and technologists arrive at decisions together. Smart campaigns will give themselves healthy lead time to arrive at these decisions. If not, expect pain down the pipeline. Early hires of inclusive, communicative, and well-integrated human technology team members are the key to enabling these strategic and development outcomes.

Mindset: Prepare to scale. In the opening months, most Presidential campaigns will have far greater internal needs than external. They will be hyper-focused on hiring staff talent at every level, setting up internal communications and building operational infrastructure. The external technology needs will be little beyond a website, CRM, mailer, and a donation processor. This dynamic sharply inverts in the closing months, when campaigns will be entirely externally focused on voters and volunteers, scaling a full analytics program alongside a full suite of voter contact tools. The early- and mid- months will present tempting but dangerous incentives to make “shortcut” technology decisions. It may not matter that your texting platform cannot handle 1000x scale in the early months, but it will surely matter as you compete across multiple states. A tech team must be prepared for the long-game – for the abrupt inversion looming before them. The early technology decisions – emailers, texting tools, donation platforms, relational organizing tools, etc – will face light traffic in the early months but needs will change around the primaries, and then again by general election. At those points, those tools must be able to bear demanding 10x – 1000x scale in a short period of time. If those tools can’t handle that (many won’t be able to), then the team should have a planned migration to a different set of tools more suited for the different use case. Don’t be afraid of this change, embrace it! The transition will be worth it.

Tech Stack: In selecting your tech stack, let the strategy of your campaign drive the decisions over what to optimize – if you are a scrappy, lean organization with an early-state-or-bust playbook, your tech stack should reflect your organizational ethos and strategy. The first crossroad decision is a case in point – whether to use a fully-integrated platform with associated proprietary tools or build and integrate individual tools. All-in integrated platforms can look like a silver bullet but sometimes don’t offer the sophistication of better individual tools, while individual tools can struggle with scale, customization and integration challenges.  

Presidential campaigns require next-level expertise and intelligence, and desperately need sophisticated tech tools to meet these unique needs. The tech tools we’ve invested in at Higher Ground Labs are excited to step up to the challenge and help presidential campaigns build lasting tech infrastructure, and our team is excited to continue to move the needle forward in 2020.