The liberal, anti-war activist whose software is now helping Donald Trump

March 5, 2016 in News by RBN Staff

Source: — Adam Satariano
Bloomberg News


(TNS) SAN FRANCISCO — In late January, Donald Trump held one of his final rallies before the Iowa caucuses at the Dubuque airport. On the tarmac, with loudspeakers blasting the theme from the Harrison Ford movie “Air Force One,” a crowd of shivering supporters roared when Trump’s Boeing 757 made a flyby. Many of the estimated 400 people in attendance had been notified about the event through NationBuilder, a digital hub for campaigns that handles website design, fundraising, organizing volunteers and social media.

As Trump has moved from outsider candidate to Republican front-runner, his campaign has been collecting email addresses, cellphone numbers, and other information from supporters and feeding the data into the NationBuilder system to automate the voter-outreach process. The software lets campaign staffers target individuals with emails about issues in which they’ve expressed an interest and notify them of events occurring near their homes. It can also track social media so a campaign can see who is liking or sharing a post.

NationBuilder’s technology is pretty much turnkey. It’s not as sophisticated as a custom-built platform, but candidates who subscribe to the service can immediately start tracking voters and organizing volunteers, for far less money. In the world of retail politics, the company has become a great democratizer since its founding in 2009. It’s given a political novice like Trump access to the type of sophisticated tools that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney had to build in 2012, helping Trump get his supporters to turn out for primaries and caucuses.

“This is what Obama figured out, but it took $1 billion and a whole host of engineers to do,” says Emily Schwartz, NationBuilder’s head of organizing. “Now it’s commercialized and readily available and can scale to different sizes of campaigns. You don’t have to be a fundraising machine. You don’t have to have million-dollar PACs behind you.” (NationBuilder, citing nondisclosure agreements, declined to discuss the services it provides to Trump. The campaign didn’t respond to requests for comment.)

NationBuilder is the creation of Jim Gilliam, who worked at Lycos, the search engine, before becoming an anti-war activist in the early 2000s. “He’s always been what people characterize as a hero engineer,” says Patrick Michael Kane, a former chief technology officer of who now runs We Also Walk Dogs, a software company that makes the organizing software ActionKit. “He can sit down and in 10 hours bang out an application that would take another engineer 100 hours to write.”

NationBuilder’s prices start at $29 a month for email blasting and social media tracking. Versions of the software that sync credit databases and consumer data — voters’ incomes, what magazines or newspapers they subscribe to, what cars they drive — with a campaign’s own voter lists run $5,000 a month and higher. Before he came along, Gilliam says, “it was at least $10,000 to get started for what we’re offering for $29 per month.” Its biggest client spends $500,000 a year.

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