Reality exceeded our expectations when we started volunteering with Sam Edney’s campaign for North Carolina House District 113. Coming in, we expected our experience to be purely technical, and we did get to engage in all of the technical work we anticipated. We collaborated in data science projects (check), learned about the types of political data available to campaigns (check), and met some like-minded folks who shared our passion for data, policy, and change (check!). Based on those criteria alone, we would consider our experience a success. However, our time with the campaign included insights well beyond the technological world, as we gained in-depth knowledge of the American political process. By the time we closed out the campaign in November, we had come to understand the workings of a down-ballot, Democratic campaign, going well beyond the traditional applications of our computer science educations.
NC House District 113 is a red, rural district. This didn’t stop Sam from running a progressive campaign, but several considerations had to be made to succeed in such an uphill battle. For example, badmouthing Donald Trump was taboo, as Republicans made up a significant majority of party-affiliated voters. Given this fact, we realized right off the bat that our team had to challenge our assumptions and think carefully about the district’s demographic makeup and how best to reach voters.
While such messaging considerations may seem obvious, it wasn’t something that we were used to thinking through. The three members of our team attend school in large, Democratic cities. We were accustomed to thinking about politics on a broad, national scale rather than digging into the nuances of local communities and the issues they face. In contrast, it was essential for Sam’s campaign to tailor campaign messaging and promises to the district’s constituents, which demanded focusing on popular issues such as education and co-opting traditionally “conservative” ideas such as the opposition of regressive sales taxes. These talking points were driven by the local campaign team’s intuition about their home district, rather than by data analysis. After speaking to the campaign’s data director and running our own numbers, it became increasingly clear that this intuition was, indeed, backed by data: we couldn’t succeed in this district without a sizable number of Republican voters splitting for Sam down-ballot.
As we worked with the campaign, we struggled to adjust our political perspectives. Each of us hails from progressive hometowns and universities, very different from rural North Carolina. In one of our weekly meetings, we learned that the Edney team had to avoid the topic of abortion. As believers in abortion rights, this was frustrating to hear. For us, topics such as canceling student debt, universal health care, and other “leftist” policies seemed like a starting point. In Sam’s district, that was far from the case. The platform for a Democrat in NC House District 113 would pass for a Republican campaign in deeply blue cities.
We had to reconcile the fact that we were working to unseat a Republican while also supporting a campaign that did not take a stance affirming a woman’s right to choose. We recognized that Sam Edney represented the best future for the 113th district, listened to the people in the district and the Edney team, and adjusted the way we viewed our involvement in the campaign. A more progressive country will be built in small steps by grassroots campaigns run for and by the people in the district. We cannot come in from our blue bubbles and assume that our ideology will resonate in rural areas. While we wait for a more just government in the US, it is well worth it to invest in campaigns like Sam Edney’s and celebrate the incremental progress made along the way.
About the Authors: Leah, Margaret, and Shruthi are all undergraduate students studying computer science. Leah is a Junior at Barnard College in New York City, NY; Margaret is a junior at Duke University in Durham, NC; and Shruthi is a Junior at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, GA. While they all had different backgrounds and experiences with politics and data science, the Edney Campaign was an incredible learning experience and has encouraged them to become more involved in progressive politics.