Crowdpac, the Political Kickstarter, Launches Its Killer Feature

Can it upend local politics?

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There’s no business better at hype than politics; except, of course, the tech industry. So it was probably inevitable that Crowdpac — a Silicon Valley-based political startup — would get a lot of buzz, both nationally and in Philadelphia, where the company chose to launch its local elections service.

Crowdpac’s aim? To upend the established political order. The for-profit company aims to do that by 1) making it easier for unconventional candidates to get into races, and 2) by giving voters the tools they need to make better decisions.

The problem is there are a lot of companies — including media outlets — that operate in that second space. And while Crowpac is using data in some interesting ways, nothing the site is doing locally to date has been particularly revolutionary or revelatory.

Yes, there were some slick and easy-to-understand campaign finance breakdowns, showing where the candidates got their cash. But the other informational offerings did not particularly impress.

For instance, the site uses an algorithm that scores declared candidates on a 1-10 scale as either liberal or conservative, based in large part on who’s donating money to the candidates. The national ratings seem reasonable, but the algorithm produced some quirky results at the local level (liberal State Sen. Vincent Hughes was given a considerably more conservative ranking than potential foes in an imagined Congressional contest).

Similarly, there’s the “political operator score,” which somehow ranked at-large Republican Councilman David Oh as more plugged-in than at-large Democratic Councilman William Greenlee, who is a ward leader, the king of Fairmount and Council President Darrell Clarke’s right hand. I don’t doubt Crowdpac’s math, but that finding is … debatable.

These might sound like quibbles. And they are, really. But the combo of hype and those less-than-amazing informational tools have led to some eye-rolling locally over Crowdpac — especially among local political consultants.

Which is just fine with Crowdpac political director Liz Jaff, a seemingly omnipresent evangelist for the service who sees Philly as an ideal test case for the startup.

“Oh the consultants hate it. They hate it. Which tells me we’re doing something right,” Jaff said.

I think it’s more the case that Crowdpac is just now beginning to do it right.

Starting today, Crowdpac’s Kickstarter-esque candidate nomination tool is fully operational. This has always been the site’s most promising and potentially “disruptive” feature.

“Disruptive” is Jaff’s word. She says she hates it, but that it applies here. I’ve come to hate the word as well, but she’s right. This is a feature explicitly designed to disrupt Philadelphia’s political status quo.

It works like this. Crowdpac users can “nominate” candidates for local, state or federal office, with or without the permission of the would-be candidate. Supporters then get to “endorse” a candidate (basically just an Internet vote, which I consider next-to-worthless) or “pledge” real money to a candidate (which I think is actually a great barometer of potential support, even if the money pledged is tiny). The donation would only be deducted from the supporters’ credit card if and when the would-be candidate officially declares he or she is running (Crowdpac takes a cut of the donation; it is a for-profit enterprise).

The idea is an intriguing one, particularly in a city like Philadelphia. The idea of a tool that opens up an end-run around the city’s ward leaders and political bosses is inherently appealing.

“We’re hoping to break open those closed doors,” says Jaff. “Unless you’re politically connected or have a lot of money, you’ll often hear: ‘it’s not your turn,’ ‘you haven’t paid your dues.’ We’re trying to cut through all of that. If enough people believe in a candidate, and pledge to support them, there’s now a way for a candidate to know that.”

In a story today, USA Today highlights how Democratic activist and Temple University adjunct professor Chris Rabb was nominated on Crowdpac for the 200th Legislative district. Reports USA Today:

He decided to ask his 4,000 Facebook friends for backing and three posts later had drawn financial pledges from more than 100 people.

The tool, he said, gave him a concrete measure of his likely support. “People said, ‘I’m going to give you money to prove to you that I believe in you.’ “

Rabb officially declared his candidacy last week.

But Rabb’s experience has so far been more the exception than the rule. The pledge function has been available for a while, but it was opaque and confusing. Crowdpac users couldn’t readily see who had the most pledges and most committed cash among the potential candidates. The Crowdpac “leader board” was instead based on “endorsements,” which is just a fancy name for an internet vote.

In other words, there was no credible way to tell via Crowdpac who among the potential candidates was gaining momentum, and who was not.

That’s changed. Crowdpac still offers an “endorsements” ranking of proto-candidates, but you can also see exactly how many financial pledges each has received, and what the value of those pledges is.

A screenshot from Crowdpac's potential candidate page for Dan Kessler, who's leading the site's "pledge" leaderboard in the 2nd Congressional District.

A screenshot from Crowdpac’s potential candidate page for Dan Kessler, who’s leading the site’s “pledge” leaderboard in the 2nd Congressional District.

Potential candidates now also get to control, to some degree, their pages on Crowdpac. That’s new. Take Omar Woodard, who’s considering a run for the 3rd State Senate district. He’s cut a video and posted it on his Crowdpac page.

This could be just what Crowdpac needs to become a consequential force in Philly politics. Next spring, there will be a lot of low-information but highly-important state offices on the ballot. That’s an environment where a tool like Crowdpac could theoretically make a real difference.

Ultimately, though, Crowdpac needs users — and lots of them. It’s no good to top a pledge leaderboard if you’ve got all of a dozen pledges. In this way, Crowdpace is like any social network. The more people that use Crowdpac, the more effective it’ll be.

Over the summer, Crowdpac partnered with the good government group Committee of Seventy to try and increase use of the site. It helped a bit. About 15,000 users created a custom ballot (that’s another tool on the site) in November’s election, a 10 percent increase over the May primary.

And that’s great. But a better gauge, I think, of Crowdpac’s impact will be the mix of candidates in the next primary. If it looks like the usual roster of party-endorsed candidates (or those backed by one big political faction or another), then Crowdpac will have fallen short. If the mix changes? Well, that would be huge.