WASHINGTON — A few years ago, Ariane Schang was an aspiring data scientist with an interest in politics but had never considered combining the two.
As she prepared to graduate from college, Schang expected to go into tech or research. But she stumbled upon a job posting that called for people with technical backgrounds who wanted to help defeat then-President Donald Trump and elect Democrats in the 2018 midterms. She applied, on a bit of a whim.
“I was definitely not looking at politics. This was the only political job I applied to,” she said.
The job was listed by a group called DigiDems, which hired her and then placed her — covering her salary as an in-kind contribution — on the campaign of now-Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., who flipped a formerly Republican-held seat in one of the country’s top House races.
Schang caught the politics bug and is now the campaigns data director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
“I didn’t even know before DigiDems that data people or folks with a technical background had a role in politics. It really wasn’t on my radar. I can’t imagine any other way I would have been exposed to it,” she said.
Political campaigns have increasingly become exercises in data management as campaigns try to identify, connect with and track thousands of voters and volunteers, all while keeping their systems secure from hackers.
But the professional networks of tech and campaigns don’t often intersect, making it hard for people in either to find one another. And tech skills are some of the most in-demand — and therefore expensive — in the job market.
LinkedIn co-founder and liberal donor Allen Blue created DigiDems in 2018 to try to fix that and expand the Democratic Party's talent pool by recruiting Silicon Valley veterans from companies like Apple, Google and Airbnb who want to do something more "mission-driven."
This year, the group plans to spend about $5 million to recruit 75 full-time technology staffers and place them on Democratic House, Senate and coordinated campaigns across the country — picking up all or most of the tab for their salaries so campaigns don’t have to.
The group has kept a low profile and almost never speaks to the media about its work, but it has opened up a bit now as it launches its recruitment for November in the face of Democratic headwinds, recognizing that there are fewer "civilians" scrambling to get into politics now than there were during the Trump years.
“Tech really isn’t a luxury for campaigns anymore; it’s necessary to win,” said Kane Miller, the group’s executive director. “That type of talent is expensive. It costs more than your typical campaign staffer and it can be difficult to recruit for. We make it economically viable to have these folks on your team.”
Other groups match tech workers who want to volunteer their time with campaigns, or train political operatives in tech skills. But DigiDems sees value in bringing in outsiders with fresh perspectives, and convincing them to stay.
The group says 80 percent of its recruits in the 2020 election cycle had never worked on a campaign before, but 73 percent ended up saying they wanted to work in politics again.
In the past, campaigns had basically two ways of reaching voters, by knocking on doors or calling landline telephones, and only had to worry about turning them out on a single day, Election Day.
Now, a campaign may be simultaneously knocking on doors, text messaging, organizing remote phone banks and activating social media networks — all while trying to keep track of who has already returned a ballot, and how, during a weekslong early voting window.
“If you’re being effective with your voters, you’re meeting voters where they are. You’re not texting a grandmother and you’re not calling and leaving a voicemail for a Gen Zer when you really should be texting them. So better data processes allow us to be more specific and granular," said Miller. “It’s under the hood. It’s like taking your campaign from a V4 to a V8. You might not see it, but you’ll see improved performance."
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