By Kriti Sehgal, Simran Soin, and Lauren Siegal
Coming from non-rural backgrounds, Rita Cruise’s campaign for NC House District 91 was the first time we had the opportunity to directly work with rural communities. Initially, we were a little nervous, unsure of what to expect, but our worries quickly melted away as soon as we met our candidate. Upon (virtually) meeting Rita, we were transfixed by her empathic vision for rural North Carolina.
We listened intently as she told us about the challenges rural North Carolinians in her district faced in trying to access healthcare, as well as the lack of economic and educational opportunities that many rural areas in the state are currently struggling with. Listening to Rita speak propelled by passion left us speechless and more so, inspired. We were enamored by the sheer power of her raw vulnerability and her honest passion of wanting to make the community a better place for not only her kids and grandkids but for everyone, and for all kids in Stokes, Surry, and Rockingham counties.
However, as technology professionals and data analysts on a political campaign for the very first time, there were a lot of things we had to learn on the go, especially in the context of North Carolina politics.
Our Campaign in the Context of NC Politics
Nearly two-thirds of North Carolina’s counties are classified by the Census Bureau as rural counties, but those counties only make up about 30 percent of North Carolina’s population. In Political Science classes, rural campaigns were usually talked about in the aggregate, and national polling data often shows how location density has a much greater effect on political attitudes than geographic location. Especially in the context of North Carolina’s hotly contested state politics, we often heard rural North Carolina dismissed as the conservative statewide force that progressive urban areas are fighting against.
When focusing so much on this political data and statewide elections, it’s easy to forget about the individuality of towns, counties, and districts within rural areas. Although this data does offer critical insight into political attitudes and public opinion, actually working with a rural North Carolina campaign served as an important reminder about the unique dynamics of the places that rural candidates are striving to represent in the state legislature. For example, while many candidates in larger cities seek an interview from one of the local newspapers that covers city politics, the media outlet that our candidate spoke to first was a local podcast from one of the three counties she is running to represent.
That being said, working with a rural Democratic campaign in North Carolina also reinforced the power of political parties and the strength of aggregation for fundraising and building a team of volunteers. Given the sometimes sparse Democratic support in individual towns in our candidate’s district, our campaign found that connecting with the county Democratic Party most adjacent to an urban area helped our candidate gain access to campaign resources. Making connections and forming relationships across the state, both with other North Carolina Bluebonnet teams and with other North Carolina campaigns and community organizations, made our campaign stronger and better positioned for November.
Our Experience as a Bluebonnet Data Team
Through our fellowship with Bluebonnet, we had the opportunity to experience some of the unique aspects of working with a rural campaign, especially a Democratic one. We had the opportunity to work directly with our candidate, Rita Cruise, and we also learned a lot more about her more personal approach to politics. While there were certainly a lot of positives, there were also some downsides from a data perspective —we had virtually no access to typical campaign tech, most notably Votebuilder.
We began by asking Rita about the data she had access to and what she hoped to accomplish. Her goals were relatively straightforward: primarily, she wanted to focus on demographic analysis of her district, social media targeting, and fundraising. However, without a campaign data team or access to Votebuilder, these goals proved to be more of a struggle than initially anticipated. Tasks like the path-to-victory calculation, that have a step-by-step guide in VAN, proved to be much more complicated without access to the necessary data, and required a lot of out-of-the-box thinking. We used publicly available resources, such as datasets from Pew Research Center and the State Board of Elections, to get an overview on social media trends across different demographics, to find possible areas to target for fundraising, and to generate call lists to recruit volunteers.
Growing up with a humble immigrant upbringing, politics and the government always seemed like a glamorous, bureaucratic process behind closed doors — too vast of a convoluted machine for me to make any meaningful impact. I saw a perpetual state of sclerotic bureaucracy and complacency in offices of power intensified by the 2016 presidential election. However, this unsettling political movement galvanized millennials across the country, including me, to rise and to do everything in our power to bring data-driven, compassionate leadership to not only the White House but also to state and local offices.
Joining Bluebonnet in the midst of a pandemic was a promising decision. As a fellow, I was able to learn and utilize innovative, progressive technologies including Grassroutes and Deck, and connect with like-minded individuals passionate about civic technology and data. Working on Rita’s campaign empowered me to leverage my technical expertise in creative ways. I’m looking forward to leveraging the skills I have learned to November and beyond.
Coming from a purely technical background, working in a campaign with limited access to data was a definite challenge. At first, I felt under-qualified to work on a project that required more political expertise. Speaking to Rita and empathizing with her passionate views was what motivated me to read more and educate myself on how to approach rural campaigning. While the problems we faced working on her campaign hinged on data and resource acquisition rather than technical challenges, I learned a lot about big picture goals and strategies of any rural campaign. I feel like this experience was an invaluable part of my journey into political technology, and I look forward to harnessing these skills in the future.
Growing up in North Carolina’s capital city, electoral politics was the backdrop to much of my childhood. I grew up going to protests, attending school board meetings that made national headlines, and quite literally experiencing illegal gerrymandering. For the past ten years, I’ve lived in the most Democratic district in North Carolina with a 75-25 Democratic advantage, next to two districts that barely eke out a 52-48 Republican advantage. After the courts struck down our state districting maps last fall, for the first time in my 16 years of living in the state, I am not represented by the 20-year Democratic incumbent who has never won a general election with less than a 15 point margin. Instead, in 2020 I’m voting in what used to be one of those two barely-Republican advantaged districts. Although our state’s maps are still arguably gerrymandered, a statewide popular vote split similar to our last general election of 50(R)-48(D) would still likely lead to an 8(R)-5(D) split in U.S. House seats. A single court’s decision made my vote more powerful in 2020 than it has ever been in my adult life. On a state level, these redrawn maps have given North Carolina Democrats the chance to flip our state legislature’s House of Representatives for the first time in ten years, and it was exciting to have the opportunity to work on a campaign that has a chance to do that, albeit small.
Coming from Raleigh, a Democratic campaign in a rural, very red North Carolina district had a different feel than the campaigns I was used to. The school board campaigns I volunteered for in my county had a larger campaign team and direct county-level support than the NCGA House of Representatives campaign we were paired with. I learned a lot about how smaller state legislature campaigns work, and I gained invaluable political tech experience that I hope to carry with me in the future. I’m really thankful that I’ve had the opportunity to work with a campaign so committed to making North Carolina a better place, and I’m looking forward to fighting for a better North Carolina through November and beyond.
As we get to the final stretch of the election cycle, we are proud to have built an entire operation from the ground up. Although we initially joined the campaign as data analysts, our work has evolved to include campaign management, communications, website design, and more. We are proud of the work we’ve done in the past few months, and we are excited to keep working through November to elect Rita Cruise to the North Carolina House of Representatives.
About the Authors:
Kriti Sehgal is a software engineer at Bank of America Merrill Lynch where she creates end-to-end technology for the firm's institutional clients as part of the Global Banking and Markets organization. She loves to stay active and volunteer in her spare time.
Simran Soin is a current third year undergraduate student at New York University, majoring in Computer Science with a minor in math.
Lauren Siegal is a recent graduate of North Carolina State University, where she majored in Computer Science, Political Science and Economics. She is currently enjoying a nice break full of knitting, reading, and baking, before starting as a software engineer at Google next month.