Why I Believe in Empower Engine

I remember my first day of canvassing for a political candidate, walking a twisting path through the neighborhoods of Fort Collins, Colorado in 93 degree heat. I was a college student with no campaign experience, all I had was my clipboard and my walk list for guidance. It was 2004 and little did I know that this day of canvassing was the launch of a career in politics and social justice that has entered its 15th year.

Looking back at this experience I’m struck by the technological advancement behind political campaigns, which have put the voters at our fingertips. At the time I couldn’t conceive of the applications and tools that now define campaign operations. Yet, despite these advancements, I’m perplexed by the persistent communication and organizational challenges that bedevil Democratic campaigns at every level. The separation between data and field unfortunately endures, as staffers still lack a unified understanding of campaign progress and overall strategy.

Answering the Who and Why

My first exposure to campaign strategy came as a full-time staff member on a state senate campaign in 2004. Our leadership had decided that grassroots mobilization was the key to victory, especially given our limited resources for traditional media. We often said that we were going to “knock every door” which I took literally, having no prior experience with targeting. As part of my role, I coordinated our canvassing program, recruiting and training volunteers and writing scripts to guide their interactions at the door. But as a trainer, I realized that I didn’t know anything about the voters with whom we’d be interacting, I had no concept of their demographic makeup. This lack of knowledge made me less effective in the field, I didn’t know our voters. All our canvassers had was a paper map, a name, an address, and a space for a subjective support score. At the end of each day, the team members turned in their list, receiving the obligatory, “good job” and that was it. I had no way to show them the impact their work. In truth, that information wasn’t shared with me.

For the next three months, this process repeated itself. Over time I noticed that some of my strongest canvassers weren’t coming back. I suspected that they lost interest because they didn’t know the value of their work. As a member of the field team, I could never communicate the “who” and “why” questions behind our broader strategy. I wondered if anyone could.         

On election night my candidate was elected to the Colorado State Senate, giving me a great sense of pride. But I was left with a lack of understanding of why we had prevailed.   

Data is King

After college I moved to Washington, DC to start a career in political campaigns. I landed at NCEC (National Committee for an Effective Congress), the organization that essentially invented precinct targeting. I spent five years immersed in collecting and analyzing political data, including precinct changes and election results. NCEC taught me about data-driven campaign strategies, the importance of knowing the demographic makeup of your voters, and how data drives every aspect of voter contact. But I always longed to see our data visually and to let campaigns do so. Unfortunately, GIS specialists were required at every turn to make even a simple map.

As a member of the NCEC staff, I was deployed to Colorado in 2006 and 2008 to assist with the Colorado Coordinated Campaign efforts, mostly confined to a data “boiler room” where voter contact numbers were the daily topic of discussion. These campaigns were armed with far more sophisticated datasets and organizing tools, which I hoped would lead to enhanced coordination between data and field. Unfortunately, though the data had brought us closer to the individual voter, the gap between data and field still existed. The field team could answer the “who” and the “why” any better than we had in 2004.  

We still haven’t solved this fundamental problem. Though the data is more complex than ever, campaigns still struggle to see the forest through the trees. Simply put,  do campaigns understand this data they’re using? Can they see what it means?

Solving the Problem

This is what has led me to Empower Engine. I believe we have developed a platform that can unify these campaign elements. Using Empower Engine, data and field can be truly integrated. Needing only basic computer skills, field staff can learn about their district before they hit the ground through in-depth visualizations that bring the data to life. Thanks to our platform, data and field can work together to track voter outreach progress in real time, making changes in resource allocations on the go. Volunteers can be easily shown why their work matters.

I can’t imagine how nice it would have been to have a tool like Empower Engine in my arsenal back in 2004, and I am excited to help bring it to teams all across the progressive space.  

Michael Piel