By Nathán Goldberg, the original founder of Bluebonnet Data.
Bluebonnet Data began in March of 2018 with a cold LinkedIn message to Beto O’Rourke. It was the first time I had tried to get involved in a political campaign.
I did not follow American elections in high school. I was not a US citizen, so I thought politics and campaigns were something for Americans to figure out among themselves.
That was until Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” he said. By calling Mexicans criminals and rapists, he made things very personal. When he talked about immigrants from Mexico, he was talking about me.
To be clear, the fact that I didn't follow elections does not mean I didn't have a basic understanding of political issues. At the very least, I knew that if someone would run for president on a platform of racism and xenophobia, it would not be a Democrat. But without the right to vote, the best that I could hope for was that Americans would make the right choice on election day. Now, the prospect of Trump’s election gave me more reason than ever to get involved, starting with submitting my citizenship application.
By the time I was finally sworn in as an American citizen at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in early 2018, Trump was starting the second year of his term and I was determined to make an impact in my first election. Back home in Texas, it looked like Beto O’Rourke might have a shot at achieving the impossible – turning Texas blue – and I wanted to be a part of it.
I paid $15 to upgrade my LinkedIn account so that I could send a direct message to Beto himself. After a brief introduction, I made my pitch:
“I'm writing to ask how I can help your Senate campaign. I read a late January article in the Austin-American Statesman that said y'all are ‘running a lean campaign, without pollsters or political consultants,’ and I think I could be useful. I have a background in statistical analysis, speak Spanish as my native language, am willing to work for free, and want to unseat Ted Cruz as much as anyone else. I just want to feel like I've done as much as I possibly can come November to give you the best chance of winning.”
He responded in two minutes. Within the hour, I was on a call with one of his advisors.
We began by discussing the ways in which data analytics could help hone their campaign strategy. At this point, the campaign team was relatively small and still lacked a data director. We compiled a list of projects and I was given the green light to recruit more data-focused volunteers to help.
A few emails sent to my dorm listserv, the statistics department, and the undergraduate Democrats club went a long way. “Who wants to do data analytics for a Senate campaign in Texas?” I wrote. The answer, it seemed, was everyone. My message made its way between students and across campuses, resulting in dozens and dozens of responses from a range of volunteers, from first-years in introductory probability courses to PhD candidates in computer science.
I realized quickly that I had struck a goldmine of people with extremely valuable skills who had been wanting to get involved in politics. However, most of them had never volunteered for a campaign before, choosing instead to spend their time on projects and internships where they could put their skills in coding and data analytics to use. Once they learned that they could use those same skills to contribute meaningfully to a political campaign they believed in, and that they could do it remotely, we had a volunteer base.
The first recruits got to work immediately on our first assignment, a county-by-county map of Texas that showed what percentage of the population had access to high-speed internet. The campaign planned to use that map to inform their policy (Beto wanted to bring greater connectivity to rural Texas, much like LBJ had plugged many small towns into the electric grid) and, further down the line, their strategy on how to reach voters across the massive state.
I interviewed more students who wanted to join the team every day, and soon we had more people than we needed to help Beto’s campaign, which had been growing steadily and had hired a Data Director and Deputy Data Director. When the spring semester came to a close, it was time to rethink how our growing team of remote data volunteers could be most useful.
If Beto’s campaign had the money and staff to cover its data needs, we wanted to focus on candidates that needed more help. We created a website to which we could refer new campaigns and pitched ourselves as a team of tech-savvy student volunteers, ready to do any and all data work for Democrats challenging Republicans in Texas. Most of us had been drawn to Beto’s campaign by the prospect of turning Texas blue, so the name for our group came naturally. Bluebonnets, the state flower of Texas, literally turn Texas blue when they bloom in the spring. Just like that, Bluebonnet Data was born.
We reached out to about half the Democrats running for Congress in Texas through LinkedIn, Facebook, campaign emails, and university alumni directories to offer free data help. Seven campaigns, particularly those that were not receiving any support from the DNC or the DCCC, took us up on our offer. Working with the campaign managers and field directors, our volunteer Bluebonnet teams acted as de facto data directors, producing win number and path to victory calculations, demographic census analyses, early vote trackers, and other district-specific data projects.
By November 6, 2018, what had started as a long-shot campaign for Senate in Texas had turned into the most expensive Senate race in history. And what had started as a cold LinkedIn message had turned into an expansive volunteer operation, supporting the data needs of eight Texas campaigns.
On Election Day, Bluebonnet Data went 0 for 8 on candidates we had supported, including Beto, who came tantalizingly close to flipping the Senate seat. Those results hurt, but they reinforced our belief in the importance of our work: these campaigns needed the help, and if we hadn’t offered it, no one else would have.
So we doubled down. In 2019, we incorporated as a non-profit, determined to expand our novel approach of deploying student-led, volunteer data teams to down-ballot Democratic campaigns that needed it most beyond Texas, to Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Virginia.
Now we continue to grow. Since we started, we have worked with nearly 50 campaigns across 13 states. We have recruited almost 150 volunteers, the vast majority of which are getting involved in politics for the first time. And we have hired two full-time staffers, bolstering our political data trainings and accelerating our ability to organize even more volunteers for campaigns in 2020 and beyond.
Bluebonnet Data exists because we believe that technology and data progress in the Democratic Party shouldn’t be reserved solely for presidential candidates or the campaigns that make the headlines. We’re making an impact today by helping down-ballot campaigns that can’t afford to hire a data director, but the long-term effects of our work are even bigger. By recruiting and training new talent to enter the progressive data space, we’re developing the next generation of technically-talented Democratic leaders who will help bring the Democratic Party into the 21st century and flip seats all across the country in the years to come.
This November, I will finally have the chance to vote in a presidential election, and voting for Joe Biden and against Donald Trump will be one of the greatest joys in my life. And I will do so knowing that, by founding Bluebonnet Data, I have done as much as I possibly can to give the Democratic Party the best chance of winning, up and down the ballot.
We see the potential for what Bluebonnet Data can achieve through our ever-growing network of volunteers: building electoral power and people power in areas of the country that Democrats have overlooked for decades. But we can’t do it alone. If you want to support our mission, you can encourage someone you know to become a Bluebonnet Fellow, refer us to a campaign that needs a data team, or donate to help cover our operational costs for this campaign cycle.