Lessons from an uphill battle

My Corona-summer was in full swing before I joined Bluebonnet.


Preceding those summer months, I had returned from working abroad in Europe to discover that I wouldn’t have school-sponsored funding to return for a Master’s program in the fall. Uninterested in what I might learn at the various software positions I came across, and more broadly unwilling to shackle myself to a 9 to 5 work schedule, I decided to just wait out the foreseeable future (or at least the next semester). Thankfully, I had savings, and an ability to live at minimal cost with my parents, who for the most part kept their criticism of this plan to side comments at the dinner table.


For a while, I enjoyed this stretch of time of no real responsibilities, but I eventually reached the limits of my routine, my discomfort manifesting itself as criticism of my own selfishness; there was surely something I could be doing to get involved in the immediate moment and help those who didn’t have the opportunity to go to the park and read for 4 hours a day mid-pandemic. Through a friend, I heard about a nonprofit-sponsored fellowship with a mission of connecting STEM students and recent grads with data science positions on Democratic campaigns.


Before applying to Bluebonnet, I hadn’t put a lot of thought into careers at the intersections of politics and technology. Like many people interested in impactful careers, getting involved with local politics had been on my radar, but I felt disenchanted with technology’s role in addressing social issues, maybe especially so having grown up in the excess of the Bay Area, where the solution to every problem seems increasingly computationally driven.


Bluebonnet’s data science fellowship seemed different from other software engineering roles I encountered. It felt more true to performing purposeful data-driven analyses, and the people involved with Bluebonnet came across as more thoughtful about how our society was changing with the growing influence of large tech companies.


The application process was straightforward. I was honest and talked about why I wanted to get involved with political technology, and within a couple of weeks I had been onboarded and awaited assignment to a campaign. Throughout the interview and onboarding, I found myself inspired by the people I met, and increasingly curious about the breadth of data science problems faced by campaigns.



Sometime between the beginning and middle of July, I was matched with the District 5 congressional campaign in Wisconsin.


My first impression was of immediate intimidation. District 5, it turned out, voted strongly red. In 2018, Tom Palzewicz (our candidate) ran against the incumbent and lost by 87,000 votes.


This year, however, the incumbent was stepping down, and it seemed there was an opportunity to tap into a COVID-fueled nationwide Democratic-shift. Furthermore, while flipping 40,000+ votes was certainly intimidating, every single flipped vote could prove influential towards flipping Wisconsin’s presidential support (In 2016, Wisconsin went Trump by ~23,000 votes).


Fortunately, I also had Bluebonnet teammates with whom to share this daunting task. The two other fellows assigned to the campaign were Shannon and Ethan. Shannon was a friend from college, who had independently applied to the Data Fellow program. We found out during the application process that the other had also applied, and requested to be placed on the same team (this happens a lot - working with people you know is encouraged at Bluebonnet!). I didn’t know Ethan beforehand but found out that he grew up 15 minutes from my hometown, and coincidentally knew one of my close friends from high school. We all got along exceedingly well.


The type of work we did from week to week varied. Some weeks, we’d be researching different data sources or strategies to address the task at hand. Other weeks, we’d be testing out different ideas we had for analysis by writing scripts to pull data from APIs or querying and pulling VAN data from the campaign’s database. Our team worked almost completely independently throughout the campaign, outside of weekly meetings with our points of contact on Tom’s team. I really appreciated this independence — while difficult at times (there are plenty of mistakes to be made, and to learn from), I felt a greater sense of ownership over our final result than I had with other projects completed while working at larger companies.


(Read more about our project here)



In the end, Tom lost the race, accumulating 39.8 percent of the vote, while his incumbent-backed opponent, Scott Fitzgerald, took 60.1 percent.


The hardest part of the experience was not that loss itself, but the opaqueness of the results. We (quite clearly) were not facing a sanitized engineering problem. This campaign was a single shot taken at a distinct point in time; there were limited ways for us to immediately evaluate how the result would have changed, had we taken a different approach.


By far outweighing this was the best part of this experience: collaborating and connecting with a group of driven, passionate people. Moments that stuck out to me include Tom’s repeated claims that Joe Biden would invite us to his inauguration after we flipped the district; a local volunteer rattling off each town in the different neighborhoods of the district, in his strong Wisconsin accent; our campaign manager’s story about seeing Klan members outside the local courthouse after the Kenosha shootings; and witnessing our points of contacts discuss going on a salad-only diet after eating fried-everything at the state fair the week before.


And importantly, I added necessary nuance to my understanding of the significance of local elections. At times during the campaign, I felt skeptical of the partisan work we were doing — scouring voter data to generate lists of potential voters to contact, while our better-funded opponent inherited a sizable lead from the incumbent’s endorsement. But by the end of the campaign, I had finally settled into two important, related realizations:


1. We were introducing necessary opposition to the well-known candidate, playing a vital role in voicing the counterpoint to a “default” choice.


2. True change comes from changes in culture. While campaigns do their best to find undecided voters to flip, there simply aren’t the resources, nor is it entirely realistic, to sway every targeted voter’s opinion in such a short span. Local elections might be equally about being part of the longer-running, more arduous process of challenging people’s beliefs.


My experience, in a sentence: running campaigns in deeply red districts can prove more difficult in many facets — but it is no less necessary, and certainly no less rewarding.




About the Author: Wesley Woo is a graduate student at MIT pursuing a Masters of Engineering in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, with a concentration in Computer Systems. His interests include low-level computing, computational urban planning and soccer.


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