Shaun Scott was chatting with a Lyft driver in Seattle recently when the conversation turned — as so many do these days — to the housing crunch. Seattle’s expensive housing market is a concern for the driver, who happens to live in Council District 4 where Scott is running for City Council. Affordable housing is central to his campaign.
Using a new app called Reach, Scott was able to quickly record his driver’s information, improving his campaign’s voter database and enabling follow-up communications. Before Reach, Scott said the process of recording that information would have been slow and clumsy at best.
Reach was designed for this kind of grassroots campaigning. Jake DeGroot and Leo Sussan dreamed up the app while working on Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s historic campaign last summer. The primary was weeks away and Ocasio-Cortez — who was running for Congress in New York’s 14th District — was down in the polls. Her campaign’s volunteers were growing weary of traditional canvassing tactics, like knocking on doors and making calls from voter lists.
“I thought, we need a way to let our volunteers canvass voters wherever they are,” DeGroot said.
One all-nighter later, the New York entrepreneur had developed an app that allowed volunteers to search the campaign’s entire database of voters anytime they were out and about talking politics. Critically, the app would allow volunteers to look up a voter and record survey responses from them to use for future canvassing and campaigning.
“People loved it. All of the sudden these volunteers who were feeling incredibly discouraged and alienated by these inefficient processes … were able to capture all these other voter interactions they were having,” DeGroot said.
Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign used Reach for the final three weeks leading up to the primary. DeGroot said that 15 percent of voters the campaign reached out to were contacted using the app. What’s more, the turnout rate of voters contacted using Reach was about 14 percent higher than the turnout rate of voters contacted using traditional methods.
When the primary came around, Ocasio-Cortez handily defeated Rep. Joseph Crowley, an incumbent with far more campaign cash who had held the seat for two decades. Word of Reach traveled fast in the progressive organizing community.
“We had a bunch of campaigns come to us from all over the country saying, ‘we heard about this thing that you guys have built. We want to use it,” DeGroot said.
Scott was among them. At the time he was working as a field organizer for Rep. Pramila Jayapal.
“I had actually sent the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tech team an email to ask about what this app was,” he said. “This legendary app that I had heard had driven turnout.”
DeGroot and Sussan hadn’t planned to turn the app into a full-fledged startup but inquiries like Scott’s showed them the appetite for this technology. They assembled a team and rebuilt the app on a sturdier foundation. By the 2018 midterm elections, 14 campaigns across eight states were using a beta version of Reach.
Last week, Scott’s campaign got up and running with Reach. His team plans to use the app to gather signatures to get his name on the November ballot.
“I actually spoke at a Martin Luther King Day rally recently where there were some people who came up as supporters,” Scott said. “I was able to look them up and log them right then. We’ll be able to follow up with them when we start our signature-gathering operation. It’s just going to reduce the amount of work that we need to do to build that grassroots movement.”
Sussan and DeGroot are being selective about which campaigns can use Reach. In general elections, the app is available to any Democrat but in primaries, Reach is limited to Democrat candidates who have vowed not to take corporate donations.
“Our mission is to power a world where grassroots progressive activism can beat corporate cash,” DeGroot said. “We see this tool as a key component for a campaign that wants to be able to win by harnessing the full power of their volunteer team.”
Though they’ve spun Reach out as its own organization, DeGroot and Sussan maintain close ties with Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and her team.
“Alexandria sees this as an extension of her effect on the party at large and politics at large,” Sussan said. “She’s keen on knowing what we’re doing on a regular basis … we’re consistently and continuously involved in her operation.”