Contributing to a Political Campaign as a Nerd

As I promised in my previous politics article, I will continue not to advocate for specific politics and remain non-partisan on my blog. I do encourage everyone, regardless of beliefs or party, to participate in politics, because it affects you whether you participate or not. Participation in our democracy can only improve it.

Over the past year or two, I have come to feel far more strongly about my politics. I live in the United States, and it’s impossible to pay attention to the news and not feel some kind of way about our Republic. This year, I decided that I needed to contribute more directly, not just passively partake in politics. If you already follow me on twitter, you know that I wear my politics on my sleeve. Like many readers, I regularly vote. Like many readers, I donate to campaigns. That’s not enough for me anymore. So I decided to do more, and reached out to some local campaigns to find out what I could offer.

I will admit that this is scary. I have spent almost 20 years working on a relatively narrow field of expertise within IT. I had no experience with politics. Going from 20 years of experience to 0 is intimidating – but if I did it, so can you. If you read this and want to contribute, I want you to know that you will do just fine. As divisive and loud and argumentative and nasty as politics seems on the evening news, every group I have worked with over the past year has been welcoming, very graceful about my lack of knowledge and mistakes, and very accommodating to how much time I have available. Please, don’t let your fear keep you out. Reach out if you have any questions!

The expertise we have is sorely needed, though, especially in political campaigns. You will quickly find out that most people involved in political campaigns are not computer experts in any way. Sure, they’re computer savvy as most people are nowadays, but there are significant gaps in that knowledge that needs filled. All you need to do is read the news and you will quickly hear about campaigns that are hacked and crowdsourced analysis of what’s on a politicians phone and overwhelming numbers of twitter and facebook shenanigans. Your help is needed and will be welcomed.

I joined a campaign and I had no idea what I was getting into. I did not find many others in tech who have shared their experiences joining their first campaign. I hope this article helps fill this gap a little bit – and if any readers are in the same situation, I would encourage you to blog about it as well! Alright, let’s get volunteering!

As I hit publish on this, there are 85 days until Election Day in the US. It is NOT too late to volunteer! Your assistance will be welcomed up until the final moments on Election Day, and there are always future elections to prepare for.

What to expect

When you click Sign Up on a campaign web site, you’ll be offered some “normal” work – canvassing, phone banking, putting a sign in your yard, etc. All things technical are notably missing from the list. To offer your technical expertise, you will have to reach out to the campaign directly. Many campaigns or candidates have a listed phone number on their website. If not, try looking at the county or state party’s website for a phone number, and inform them that you would like to get in contact with the campaign.

You will have a chance at some point to talk to the candidate or a campaign manager and make sure that’s who you want to work for. Treat it like a job interview! The campaign will ask what you can do, and you get to ask the campaign about what they will do if elected. Be honest! When I first talked to my campaign, I explained that I had 20 years of IT experience but no campaign experience. I was willing to take on things unknown, but I wanted to make sure they knew it would be new to me. I found out they had an experienced webmaster who would be providing me assistance if I joined. I also asked a lot of pointed policy questions to ensure that I would be happy if this candidate was elected. Get your questions answered and let the campaign know whether you want to join and what you can contribute.

General tech tasks

There are so many areas you can contribute to the technology side of a campaign, regardless of where in technology you work. Here’s a very short, very incomplete list of items you can help with:

  • Setting up a free Slack and teaching people how to use it (EVERYONE uses slack nowadays!)
  • Setting up a website and analytics
  • Configuring multi-factor authentication on all services
  • Setting up apps on phones and tablets
  • Answering questions about how to use a computer, application, or service, even if you’re just functioning as Google as a Service for really busy people
  • Providing a sounding board for anything technical, including how technical people and companies may respond to something

Depending on what your expertise is, you may be able to offer some very specific needs. Surely, what you know can be applied to a campaign, though I may not be able to tell you how. A lot of my expertise is in information security. Here are some examples of InfoSec advice you can provide:

  • Explain threat models. Make sure you know how they apply, too; the threat model of running for US Senator is much different than that of running for a local council seat. Everyone can benefit from making sure they don’t expose their financial details to the world, but fewer are worried about specific attacks by enemy nation-states.
  • Ensure services are registered to a well protected account that belongs to the campaign instead of a random gmail account that belongs to someone who may leave the campaign.
  • Make sure MFA is enabled everywhere possible.
  • Restrict access to services to who needs it, and at the least permission level

Remember that you are advising a campaign, not running your own business, so you will probably “lose” some arguments in areas where you are objectively the expert, and that’s okay. Make sure everyone acknowledges the trade-offs being made, and do your best to minimize the potential fallout. If there’s a realistic chance of failure, prepare remediation plans so that you are ready if they are needed – the same kinds of thing you do at work to cover your company’s butt.

Be aware of how much you can contribute. If you can only spend 2 hours a week with the campaign at odd times of the day, maybe you are not the best person to run their web site. That’s okay, just make the campaign aware that you want to help as well as your limits and surely they can find a way to make it fit. If you can spend more hours, then I encourage you to take on more significant tasks. If your circumstances change, just let the campaign know!

There are tons of small things like this that you can contribute. Don’t worry if you can’t think of something now, if you reach out to the campaign I’m sure you can come up with something together!

Larger projects

In addition to these general tasks, you may be able to contribute to higher level projects to help the campaign. If you are a data scientist, a campaign needs you! Everyone needs to know which voters to target, and they’re hopefully looking for more ethical assistance than we have seen campaigns pursue in the past. Many campaigns can determine what kinds of voters they want to target, but they may lack the skills to find those voters within the mass of voter information available. Those who are great with analytics can help get data from the web sites to the voter analysis teams. Social media experts can help leverage Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other services to get messaging out effectively. Online advertising needs your expertise in marketing and advertising. Larger campaigns may need custom applications like HillaryBnB (an AirBnB-style app for canvassers).

Again, I had no experience with campaigns so these are just a few of the efforts I’ve observed recently, it’s a very non-comprehensive list of options. Each campaign’s needs are different, so I suggest checking with the campaign to see what is needed, rather than trying to offer specific projects.

Tackling the unknown

Though you are volunteering because you have expertise, sometimes what a campaign needs does not line up exactly. It’s a good thing we are an industry that is constantly learning! Lean on your existing expertise to get going.

I decided to help out a campaign with Google AdWords, as the lack of such a campaign was identified when I joined. Prior to June 1st, I had never used AdWords or done anything with advertising, online or otherwise. Yeah, it was intimidating. But I believe in my candidate, so I tackled it like any other tech I learned. I found some technical articles about how AdWords works and tips for novices, scrounged up some youtube video so I could see it, and then set up an account and got to work. After almost 3 weeks, I am starting to figure it out, and the campaign is benefiting from my efforts. Find something and dig in. You can grow your technical skills and help advocate for your politics at the same time!

While I will not pretend to be authoritative on AdWords, I want to share some things I learned, beyond the simple mechanics that you can learn through the documentation and tutorials:

  • Create the AdWords account with a central campaign account. Add additional administrators with campaign-specific emails, rather than personal emails. This makes it more difficult for someone to leave the campaign and take down advertising.
  • There’s a pretty decent iPhone app for AdWords, and it’s gives you some views not available on the web site, but you cannot edit very much on it. I am sure there is one for Android as well.
  • Google will provide a $100 coupon after spending your first $25. It will be sent in an email to the account owner’s email and it’s not automatic, you need to apply the code.
  • Google will also send an email advertising a free review of your account. I would wait a few weeks before calling, so that the specialists can see some data from your campaigns.
  • Impressions (someone seeing your ad) are free. Clicks (when someone actually clicks on them) are the only thing that costs you money.
  • Campaigns are made up of Ad Groups. Each ad group can advertise a different set of text and point to a different page, but funding is allocated on a Campaign level. You can add as many ad groups to a single campaign, but budget is allocated at the campaign level. You need to balance the number of campaigns and ad groups, and keep balancing them as voters’ interests change.
  • Each Campaign can also be targeted to different locations. You can limit some AdWords Campaigns to the political campaign’s region (by district for federal offices; by using zip codes for state and local offices) to focus your advertising, such as issues-based campaigns. Others may be made open to a wider area, maybe even the whole country, such as donation campaigns.
  • Each Ad Group can be made up of keywords which receive mostly-opaque scoring. The better the score, the better the placement. Keywords that do not result in Impressions receive a lower score and can drag down the score of the entire Ad Group. Disable keywords that do not work, or replace them with more specific and helpful keywords, to keep the scoring up. All the scoring is Google magic, and the effectiveness of this will vary quite a bit for every organization. Keep an eye on it.
  • Keywords are words or phrases that you want your ad matched to. You can also add Exclusions. Combine this with Search Terms results, which show the actual search someone used and the keyword or category it matched, to filter out Impressions/Clicks that are not helpful to your campaign. I have seen some really ridiculous search terms, including the amazing imagen you are an environmentalist giving a speech environmental due to population growth in the western united states that matched the keyword environment. Whoops, way too generic, it was replaced with a more specific phrase. Another was a search including the name of another candidate in another entire state and that one click ate the entire campaign budget for the day. Keeping up with Exclusions can save your campaign a lot of money.
  • Google watches monthly trends to determine when best to spend money. Your daily budget is better thought of as the average daily spend over a 30 day period. For example, Google may determine that you won’t get much out of ads on Saturday and spend close to $0, but the 2nd Wednesday of the month get the most impact and spend far more than your budget. You will only ever be charged 2x your specified budget, even if Google “spends” 2.3x your budget (I have never observed them going past 2.0x).
  • Almost everything you do with AdWords can be changed on the fly. However, there are two things to keep in mind:
    • Any new ad or keywords (and you cannot edit ads/keywords, you actually make a new one to replace the existing one) must be approved. It can take up to 24 hours to approve. You can add ads/keywords and disable them, then enable them when needed, to ensure they are approved prior to when they are needed.
    • Significant budget changes may flag a fraud alert. If you have a significant event-related campaign coming up, set it up at least 3 days in advance, as it can take 3 days to resolve suspected fraud. If you are spending $10 a day and want to increase that to $300 for a weekend event and your account gets flagged on Friday, it may be Monday before it is unfrozen and your event will be over.
  • You won’t find many AdWords tutorials that speak to political campaigns. It’s strongly associated with businesses. A few articles and charts mentioned Social Advocacy, which is probably the closest, but…
  • Success is difficult to measure. A business may track how many people click versus how many people order something. A donation campaign can track how many people donate, but an issues or awareness campaign cannot correlate visitors to the site with votes in a primary or general election. Conversion rates on their own won’t tell you much.
    • For many candidates, awareness itself is the goal. Many voters do not fill out the whole ballot and only check non-federal boxes if they recognize the name. Responsive Ads (as opposed to Text Ads) are fairly unobtrusive but can display small graphics. Logos are very helpful to start creating brand awareness.
    • Run at least two Ads for each campaign, much like you would do A/B testing at work. Review regularly and tweak the ads over time.
  • Advertising is not an island. Coordinate with the Social Media team and the event planners. If your candidate is going to be at a local festival or state fair in a few weeks, add some keywords for the event. If Social Media is blitzing on a policy, make sure common keywords will drive voters to your candidate. When things happen in the news that affect your voters, make sure their searches will bring them to your candidate. Likewise, you can review search terms people use and inform the other teams that these are some of the things voters are searching for and make sure the candidate speaks to those concerns.
    • This can feel very ghoulish or morbid. Much of news that drives people to politicians is going to be of a negative nature. We generally don’t call our elected officials when things are looking up. You WILL probably have to capitalize on an event that resulted in harm or death. In my case, unfortunately, there was a school shooting near the district. Ugh. But voters do want to know their candidate’s policies on subjects like school shootings. Be responsible and principled and above all, caring. Do not let the need to respond compromise your integrity or the candidate’s.
  • Your candidate’s party has other candidates running. Reach out to them for assistance, for ideas, for additional eyes on problems. You can get contact info from your county/state party’s offices, usually.
  • AdWords includes a large number of reports. Working in IT, our tendency is to encourage others to run reports themselves, but everyone on a political campaign is likely already spending all the time they can on their areas of expertise. It can be a huge help if you create/tweak reports for others, and schedule them to email the requester regularly.

Summary

Just because many of us make technology a huge part of our lives, we are not one dimensional. If you feel inspired by politics, don’t hide it, become active. I’ve discussed what you might expect if you join a political campaign, some of the work and expertise technologists can offer campaigns, and my experience in joining a campaign. Whether you contribute a few hours a month or hours every day, you will be a vital part of chosen campaign. That’s awesome! Participation in democracy is what makes our Republic so strong, and that of most democratic governments.

If you have any questions about volunteering, whether it’s technical or about the experience or something else, please reach out. You can drop a comment here, or @rnelson0 on twitter.

Enjoy, and thank you!

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