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Geek in Disguise: Winning local elections through data sharing

Published: Nov 30, 2018

How Barbara Nelson is ushering progressive change in Orange County using NationBuilder and CallHub.

“I had a guy who was a teaching assistant tell me “Well of course you don’t understand calculus. You’re a girl!””


Today, Barbara Nelson runs her own digital agency that helps political candidates set up and manage the digital infrastructure for their election campaign. Barbara uses NationBuilder, CallHub, Organizer and other digital tools to create a plug-and-play strategy for local and congressional races.

“When people consider what I do, they immediately think of a 20-something white guy. And I often end up working with a lot of those younger guys. Its always entertaining to watch their surprise when they realize I actually know what I’m doing. I tell people I’m a data geek in disguise.”


Orange County, California used to be considered very conservative and very influential within the Republican Party with a lot of money and leadership flowing from the region. But over the years, the demography and ethnic makeup has changed, with a current population that is about 60% people of color. The county that was once reliably red, is experiencing a surge of progressive candidates who now believe there is a chance of flipping seats in their favor.

Most of these candidates were still relying on traditional methods to run their campaigns. Pen and paper call lists for phone banking, clipboards for canvassing, and spreadsheets for data management were the norm with no central structure to campaigns.

“In Orange County we didn’t have any competitive races. Everyone kind of knew from the beginning who was going to win because it was so lopsided in terms of the numbers. So, folks here did not learn how to use digital tools. There wasn’t the kind of money or resources to justify investing in that stuff. The local candidates here are still playing catch-up.”

And it gets harder when people are averse to any sort of change that takes them out of their comfort zone.

Barbara recounts one example from when she volunteered at a friends School Board race:

“We’re good friends. She ran for office in 2016 and had to consult with someone about managing the campaign. And this guy replies “You don’t need one of those data things, we’ve got spreadsheets.” And this was a large race, it was a large school district. I still find myself having to convince people that we can’t run campaigns on spreadsheets, not anymore.”

The next challenge that added fuel to the fire was the way local campaigns usually function, popping up one fine day and closing shop on another. A way of working that didn’t give them time to slowly build resources.

“If someone decides to run; it’s boom, let’s do all this stuff and that they don’t have time to completely take advantage of the tools that are out there.”

Local candidates in Orange County needed a quick and easy to set-up digital solution that was also light on the pocket. And that’s exactly what Barbara’s agency, BNelson Campaign Services took to them.


Campaign in a box

Barbara came up with the idea of ‘Digital Infrastructure as a Service’, a plug-and-play campaigning model where any person who wants to run in a local race gets immediate access to all the digital platforms they’d need to run an effective voter outreach and engagement program. The platforms would come pre-loaded with data that is useful to them – organizations they could connect with, key people they should be reaching out to and more.

“My goal is to let people not get bogged down by the technical aspects of running a campaign and instead let them spend time on the big picture strategies that will win races.”

Campaigns are given access to their own NationBuilder account to act as the database, a sub-account in CallHub for phone banking and text messaging outreach and an Organizer account for door-to-door canvassing. Daily reports on all campaign activities across tools are collated on Evernote spaces so the candidate only has to go to one location to access the entirety of campaign activities for the day.

Going digital

Using CallHub’s integration with NationBuilder, Barbara brought in voter lists and surveys into CallHub. Volunteers used the lists to make calls and send text messages while survey forms were used to capture voter preferences and support levels. Interested volunteers could fill in a form and get added to a campaign and start contacting voters right away. The integration ensured that all activity on CallHub instantly synced back into the campaign database in NationBuilder.

“I remember the first time I showed someone CallHub in action. It was election day for a governor’s race where we had remote volunteers in three locations who sent out a million text messages and engaged 75,000 people.
And they ask me
“Well, where’s the report, how do I see it in NationBuilder?”
and I go “It’s done.”
and they said “What do you mean?”
and I reply “It was happening as they were doing the texting.”
and they were like “Really!”
It was kind of like this magic toy, they were so excited.”

Along with Peer to Peer Texting, campaigns also used CallHub automated dialers to call landlines and Collective Calling to contact cellphones.

Each local campaign was given access to their own CallHub sub-account which would be populated with the respective voter lists with all sub-accounts managed from one parent account.

This distributed model of campaigning also resulted in one of the most amazing examples of data sharing we’ve seen in election campaigns.

Democratizing voter data

“Too many campaigns start on their own and start from zero. It’s time-consuming and there’s never enough time to get everything done.”

Campaigns usually start by uploading a voter list to the voter contact software and then reaching out to everyone on the list to identify whether they are a supporter, swing voter or opponent. After the first round of segmentation, the campaign has to go through multiple stages of outreach to identify and convince the people who will go to the polls in support of the candidate or measure. Each step costs money and time – both of which are in short supply in a local race.

“There is a big difference between voter engagement and supporter engagement. When we first reach out to people, they’re just voters we try to understand; whether we call them, text them or knock on their door. And then we start identifying the folks who support us or are open to the possibility. And then we’re going to talk to them differently. Because now I want to try to get them to volunteer. I want them to make a donation. I want them to come to an event; it’s a whole different conversation.”

Since different local races (School Board, Supervisor, Mayoral etc) in a region target the same voters, if one campaign collected information on supporter levels, voter preferences and issues, and then shared it with others, it would benefit other candidates running for a different position.

By sharing data, campaigns working towards the same goal give each other a leg up and save on scarce resources. 

Barbara achieves this through a clever way of using tags with the CallHub-NationBuilder integration.

She brings the entire voter file for a region into NationBuilder. Each CallHub sub-account is then connected to NationBuilder and populated with parts of the list. Volunteers making calls or sending out texts through CallHub apply tags to individual voter profiles based on their responses. For example, a supporter gets a “supporter” tag while a voter who hasn’t made a decision is tagged as “undecided_voter”.

As each campaign begins to engage and identify potential supporters from the list, the tags are shared from the main NationBuilder account across other accounts. That means, if the “supporter” tag is shared, the profiles of every voter with that tag show up in the NationBuilder account of every  campaign.

This ensures that campaigns only reach out to relevant voters and do not waste resources contacting people who will not vote in their favor.

“If I already know the person doesn’t take phone calls because I’ve had one client try, then my other three clients don’t need to try to call them too.”

“People are overwhelmed when there’s too much data. They don’t know what to do with all of it, and you have a lot of the information that’s not useful. If you know that 10,000 people are never going to vote for you; never!; then why are you wasting resources on them?”

An added advantage of the workflow that Barbara built up is that campaigns don’t end up paying more than they have to for their NationBuilder account since it is only populated with relevant voter records. Which makes it a great fit for local races that have to work around stringent budgets.

“NationBuilder has multiple tiers of pricing, the first 5,000 records with up to 1,000 emails is $29 a month. And then as you grow, the price goes up in chunked fashions.”

Nurturing this culture of data sharing ends up benefiting everyone in the long run. We’ve seen other instances of data sharing in elections, with the Obama campaign’s voter database being redeployed across multiple races and the way NGPVAN consolidates access to voter data for Democratic candidates. But local races are often left out of the picture in these scenarios. It’s a refreshing surprise to find it in action at the local level.


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