The Left’s Technology Machine

December 3, 2012

Since the election, volumes have been written about the Obama campaign’s impressive use of technology. Much of this content has focused not only on the actual tools and technologies built by the campaign, but also on how those tools were deeply integrated into the most senior levels of the operation.

Our research shows another side to the story. The campaign’s success at leveraging technology is not the one-off result of an unlikely 2008 candidate who had the benefit of strong support in Silicon Valley. Instead, Obama’s reelection was the culmination of nearly a decade of research, experiments, and study of best practices by a collection of consistently well-funded organizations across the Left.

These organizations are non-profits, advocacy groups, labor unions, and for-profit businesses all with the common goal of bringing evidence-based best practices and technological innovation to elections. Led by researchers and behavioral scientists, these organizations are not only exploring technology in campaigns, but also how voters come to decisions about turning out to vote, and making a decision to support a specific candidate. It is this deeper understanding of human interaction and decision-making that is driving their successful adoption of technology, not merely the tools themselves.

In our research, we have identified over 25 organizations involved in this effort to date. Some are consulting firms, others software applications. But many are familiar players in the political landscape, including the AFL-CIO and ActBlue, the ubiquitous fundraising tool. Undoubtedly, this list will expand over time, but for starters, we are listing the organizations below, as well as some top line information we have about them.

Looking at the list below, what becomes clear is the level of specialization within the Left’s efforts. Certain organizations are solely focused on data while others are focused on field experiments in voter contact. Others are focused on training, while others are focused on media and content. Still others provide overall strategic direction, and another group is focused exclusively on cultivating and managing donors and funding.

This level of specialization, which is a trend continued from the Colorado Democracy Alliance (CODA) in 2006, allows organizations to take ownership over specific needs within the overall effort. This distributed approach to advocacy, as opposed to many of the silos developed on the Right, enables greater collaboration and centralized efforts. Even though these organizations are segmented, they collaborate closely at events like RootsCamp and NetRoots Nation. Through distributed organizations working in close collaboration while supporting candidate campaigns, the progressive movement has created a highly-efficient model for political innovation, resulting in both success at the ballot box as well as long-term capacity development.


  • Online donation platform for any progressive candidate or organization
  • Organized as a PAC, so they can send 100% of funds to the target organization


  • Web development shop focused on Drupal working with progressive candidates and organizations
  • Frequent contributor to open-source code projects (using their time to make free tools accessible to other organizations)


  • The AFL-CIO has been a longtime hub of innovation using digital technologies and strategies.
  • In 2012, the AFL-CIO launched “RePurpose”, a social media tool that “allows users to build political networks through their Facebook contacts and find local volunteer events like phone-banks or door-knocking. Users are awarded points for every time they do campaign work, which they can use to direct political help — such as direct mail pieces or Web advertisements — to candidates they support.”


  • iPad app to enable call-from-home programs, peer-to-peer contacts via Email and Facebook, and personalized mail pieces

Analyst Institute

  • A clearinghouse for evidence-based best practices in progressive voter contact
  • Conducts randomized field experiments to study various campaign tactics
  • Board members include Mike Podhorzer (Chair, AFLCIO), Hal Malchow (direct mail consultant), Laura Quinn (Catalist), Jeff Malachowsky (Wellspring Partners), Todd Rogers (Harvard Kennedy School), Mark Steitz (TSD Communications)

Blue State Digital

  • Digital consulting firm founded by former Howard Dean online campaign staffers
  • Launched bsdtools, an integrated suite of online activism tools incorporating email, canvassing, fundraising, CRM, events, and peer-to-peer advocacy
  • Clients include a who’s-who of liberal candidate campaigns, including Obama for America, the DCCC, Elizabeth Warren for Senate, and the NAACP
  • Acquired by WPP in December 2010


  • Unified database product for liberal groups, widely used across campaigns and advocacy organizations
  • In 2008, was providing data service to more than 90 organizations
  • According to The Victory Lab, Catalist allows voter registration groups to add newly registered voters, whose records are then downloaded by campaigns for persuasion and GOTV, and it all happens before the Board of Elections has even processed the registration.

Citizen Engagement Laboratory

  • CEL’s mission is to increase the rate of societal and political change by accelerating tech-savvy, people-powered organizing initiatives, facilitating collaboration across these initiatives, and evolving the model of technology-fueled organizing.

Clarity Campaign Labs

Crossroads Campaigns


  • Left-wing blog, much like RedState
  • Section specifically on Election-related news
  • In 2010, DailyKos partnered with Public Policy Polling to begin running polls in competitive races. This gave them a platform to generate original news in addition to being a community blog.



  • Progressive digital agency, having worked with dozens of liberal organizations
  • Drupal-focused, as are many progressive web shops

The Engage Network

  • Researching, designing and implementing best practices in network building and online to offline engagement

Innermost Labs

  • Innermost Labs aims to develop mobile technology which meets the needs of progressive organizations and activists. Organizational technology evolves rapidly, and we want to help ensure that progressives remain on the cutting edge.

Movement Strategy Center

  • The Movement Strategy Center brings a cohesive plan to strengthen these emerging efforts and build the progressive social justice movement. We do this by supporting individuals, organizations, alliances and sectors to be more strategic, collaborative and sustainable.
  • Helps emerging organizations and movements with networking, field building and organizational development
  • Offers services for grant makers to guide giving recommendations
  • Offers an incubator for organizations and leaders, quite possibly a way to pay campaign staffers between elections


  • Activist network with tradition of integrated technology innovation
  • In 2012, created a Facebook app called Vote Buddy, that enabled Facebook users to encourage their friends to vote.


Netroots Nation

  • Annual conference for engaging progressive activists. Much like Right Online or CPAC, but with a strong focus on action and activism.

The New Media Journal

New Organizing Institute

  • Organization that trains progressives on the use of technology, builds technology projects to serve progressive groups, and creates community for professional progressive operatives across campaigns and advocacy organizations
  • Hosts an annual conference called RootsCamp that is dedicated to sharing best practices in progressive community organization


  • Unified online campaign management platform
  • Online voter contact database
  • Links with other data sources and was part of the Obama campaign’s Narwahl project

Salsa Labs

  • A single, fully-integrated, online platform that helps any nonprofits & political campaigns of all sizes to fundraise, advocate, communicate and organize anytime, anywhere.
  • Helping nonprofits & political campaigns organize & energize people everywhere by providing the online fundraising, supporter management, communications and advocacy solutions you need.


  • A project of the Center for Media and Democracy
  • Wiki containing highly biased reports on both right and left leaning organizations

Strategic Telemetry

  • A consulting firm that provides microtargeting, mapping, and data analysis services for corporations, governments, campaigns and non-profit organizations. Through proven practices and custom tools, Strategic Telemetry can provide powerful solutions for all of your outreach management needs.
  • Central to Barack Obama’s 2008 win by creating targeted walk lists of potential supporters by using data models of existing supporters.
  • In Iowa 2008, created a 1) Turnout Score and 2) Likely Supporter Score for every caucus-goer, or potential caucus-goer. Later added another score for likelihood to switch votes.
  • Uses what it calls “Virtual IDs” to supplement hard IDs. This enables them to create a score for every voter in a district and helps target voter contact for turnout or persuasion.

TSD Communications

  • DC-based PR firm that “provides creative and effective communications strategies for companies, campaigns, and causes”
  • Clients include Google, XM Satellite Radio, The Open Internet Coalition, George Soros, Robert Rubin, David Einhorn, The Open Society Foundations, The Gates Foundation, The Hamilton Project, The Center for American Progress, The AFL-CIO, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins University, MDRC, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Freedom to Travel to Cuba Campaign, The Athens 2004 Summer Olympics, Qatar 2022 World Cup Bid Committee, Obama-Biden ’08
  • Founder Mark Steitz is a member of the Board for the Analytics Institute


  • A Buzzfeed of online videos with a progressive message
  • Has raised $4 million in venture capital
  • Planning on creating memes — this will further push liberal messages into the pop culture

Voter Participation Center

  • Formerly Women’s Voices. Women Vote (WWWV)
  • Conducts research and voter registration specifically focused on unmarried women and Latinos

Wellspring Advisors

  • Coordinates grantmaking programs that advance the realization of human rights and social and economic justice for all people.
  • Jeff Malachowsky, is the program director Program Director of the Civil Society Program at Wellspring Advisors, and also a board member of the Analyst Institute
  • From PIRG: “Wellspring’s Civil Society program area, located in down town Washington, DC, currently focuses on non-partisan programs that register minority and other under-represented citizens to vote, provide civic education and encourage voting, while strengthening progressive advocacy organizations. We also support efforts to enforce voting rights and prevent voter suppression.”

George Scoville contributed to this post.

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