The disastrous Iowa caucuses, still unresolved four days after they occurred this week, are a case study in what’s broken with Democratic electoral politics. The Democratic National Committee on Thursday announced a “recanvass,” which means a full recount of the caucuses.
Setting aside the recount trainwreck and subsequent conspiracy theorizing, the most perplexing part of this saga is the involvement of the digital strategy group Acronym. Acronym is the parent organization of, among other things, a company called Shadow, which developed a mobile app for caucus leaders to tabulate votes that completely ate shit Monday night.
Acronym has assembled over the past year and a half a star-studded list of backers in Democratic politics, for the purpose of beating the GOP’s internet campaign strategy. The amount of money it plans to deploy this election cycle — at least $75 million — would on its own surpass the amount that the Trump campaign spent on Facebook in the 2016 election.
Structured as a 501(c)(4), Acronym, which was founded in 2017 by the political strategist Tara McGowan, is not required to disclose its funders and other key details about its leadership. This makes it a so-called “dark money” group, a term popularized by the investigative reporter Jane Mayer, who wrote a book called Dark Money, which is about secretive right-wing groups that amass money to influence politics; McGowan holds the book aloft in her Twitter profile picture.
So, much remains unclear. What is Acronym? Who is Acronym? Why is Acronym? Why are there so many parts of Acronym? And what about Shadow? How does this all work? Who knows what? What is going on?
The whole situation reminds me of perhaps the only apt or funny thing Mark Zuckerberg ever said, which was to describe then-rival Twitter as being like “if they drove a clown car into a gold mine and fell in.” As far as I can tell, Acronym is a mish-mash of flashy consultants and strategists, some of whom have real political talent and expertise, and some of whom have conveniently adjusted their relationship to the organization after Caucus-gate.
Take, for one, Barack Obama’s former campaign manager David Plouffe, who publicly announced that he was taking a seat on Acronym’s board in the New York Times last November. On Monday night, however, he put distance between himself and Shadow specifically. Calling himself a “volunteer board member of Acronym,” he said “I have no knowledge of Shadow” in response to Chris Hayes’ friendly interrogation. However, a source described the latter part of that line to me as untrue, and said that Plouffe has had direct contact with Shadow staff since he joined Acronym’s board. Who else serves on Acronym’s board (or Shadow’s for that matter) is a mystery — the group is not required to disclose such information.
“[Plouffe] has not received nor will he ever receive compensation from ACRONYM or any of its affiliated entities,” Acronym spokesman Kyle Tharp said in a statement to The Outline on Thursday. “His focus has always been on the ‘Four is Enough’ digital advertising campaign. David had no knowledge of Shadow’s contracts before Monday’s events took place.”
Another big name vaguely attached to Acronym is Facebook chief product officer Chris Cox, who last fall specifically singled out the organization as one he’d be involved with after he left the social network last March; Cox described himself as an “informal adviser.” Neither Plouffe nor Cox responded to direct requests for comment over email and Facebook Messenger respectively.
In the past couple of days, a somewhat sharper picture of what Acronym is and what purpose it serves has come into focus. Within and adjacent to the Acronym umbrella sits the for-profit businesses of Lockwood Strategy (a conventional consulting shop; the people running the aforementioned ad campaign in which Plouffe is involved), Courier Newsroom (a liberal local news network), and, of course, Shadow — the company that made the bad app. There is also a well-produced politics discussion podcast called FWIW (hosted by McGowan), and a weekly newsletter that is a fairly detailed digest of political goings on. Another essential cog is Pacronym, the political action committee affiliated with Acronym that is actually responsible for disbursing political advertising dollars, and which raised nearly $8 million last year.
“McGowan also has created a lot of new things in a very short period of time and has seemed stretched thin, which means her oversight of projects like Shadow may have suffered.”
Though the plan may have been to make Acronym something like the political version of Alphabet — the holding company created by Google to arrange its different divisions — the execution has not been so neat. As another source told me on Tuesday, Acronym is a dysfunctional place. Further reporting by The Outline and other outlets have further confirmed this, and even McGowan’s admirers acknowledge that something went wrong.
“Tara is smart and driven and has a vision for digital-first engagement. She is an excellent fundraiser and offered a compelling case that she knew how to win. They have had some success in state, local, and midterm races, including, I believe, in Virginia,” one Democratic strategist who has worked with McGowan told me. “She also has created a lot of new things in a very short period of time and has seemed stretched thin, which means her oversight of projects like Shadow may have suffered.”
McGowan herself has gone quite a bit further. In an interview with Axios on Wednesday, she said that "with the ethos of taking great risks means that we can make great mistakes," a line that basically sums up a lengthy Medium essay she published that same night. In other words, according to McGowan, issues like Shadow’s Iowa caucus failure are what come with the territory. This is quite the pivot from Tuesday, when Acronym released its initial statement which describes the group as just one of several private investors in Shadow, despite ample previous evidence suggesting Acronym’s more hands-on involvement in the group.
Acronym has yet to address the fact that its website was recently altered from saying it “launched” Shadow to simply noting that it was an investor in the company. On an Acronym-produced podcast released last month, she described Shadow as “the technology company that Acronym is the sole investor in now.” An organization chart obtained by the Intercept reportedly shows “digital strategy firm Lockwood Strategy, FWIW Media [which appears to operate Courier Newsroom], and Shadow as part of a unified structure, with Acronym staff involved in the trio’s operations.”
Throughout all of this, a question I’ve wondered is how Shadow — a company focused on building digital election infrastructure — came to be lumped in with Acronym, the rest of whose businesses are entirely about political advertising and digital marketing, a structure that’s unusual even by the standards of political vendors. Last year, Acronym announced that it had “acquired” the “peer-to-peer SMS and CRM tool” (in English: texting and database software) Groundbase and re-”launched” it as Shadow, to be led by Acronym “Chief Technology Officer” Gerald Niemera (who issued his own apology to Bloomberg for the Monday caucus disaster). Advisors to a Groundbase seed investor, Higher Ground Labs, include well-known center-left establishment figures like Pod Save America hosts Jon Favreau and Tommy Vietor, former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, among others.
On Sunday, before things went to shit and everyone was still having a good time, McGowan posted to Instagram a number of photos from a bar featuring some familiar faces, including Favreau and Vietor, in addition to a few senior Pete Buttigieg campaign officials (including McGowan’s husband, Michael Halle, and his brother, Ben Halle). Also present was Troy Price, leader of the Iowa Democratic Party, and thus the man responsible for the approximately $60,000 contract that Shadow received to build the app it bungled.
But whatever initial success McGowan and Acronym had, such as in the 2017 Virginia gubernatorial race, it has given way to a much more conventional story about how the Democratic Party works, and about how the old guard clashes with the chaos of the startup world.
“Their pitch is that everyone is doing it wrong, and they’re here to disrupt and innovate… and they don’t always follow through with that in a successful way,” is how one unnamed Democratic strategist put it to Recode. “Investors want to invest in shiny, new, cutting-edge things, but there’s not a ton of actual evidence there,” said another.
A story I heard to this effect came from a former contractor for McGowan, who was employed in Acronym’s early days to work on an ad campaign for Acronym’s “Knock the Vote,” a initiative to turnout millennial voters. The contractor told me that they were brought in to execute an already scripted idea, which they did for approximately $45,000; this person estimates the total budget of the video they worked at between $50,000 and $80,000. After finishing the video and going through at least one round of edits, McGowan decided to spike the video and go in a different direction.
“This was the first time this ever happened with me on a political campaign,” said the contractor, who has worked in political and corporate advertising for over 20 years. “The thing that pissed me off about it, aside from ego damage, was that you’re spending people’s money that’s lefty money. It’s supposed to be ‘unique’ and ‘digital,’ and that's Tara's whole pitch.”
And she has gotten figures as significant as Plouffe, a human revolving door between Obamaworld and the private sector, and Chris Cox, previously the third-most important person at Facebook, to publicly attach themselves to her project.
There’s every indication that the story that McGowan has assembled for donors was a terrifically compelling one. She’s hired away multiple employees from Facebook, including a former embedded Facebook staffer on the Trump campaign. She has raised millions of dollars from Hollywood types like Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams, to whom she apologized privately and profusely (“It pains me immensely that we have brought any question or doubt to your minds about our ability to do this work following the error by the Shadow team”) before herself going on the record with Axios and in her Wednesday night Medium essay. And she has gotten figures as significant as Plouffe, a human revolving door between Obamaworld and the private sector, and Chris Cox, previously the third-most important person at Facebook, to publicly attach themselves to her project.
But convincing people to give money is not the same thing as spending it effectively. The distance between the two, as the New Republic’s Alex Pareene wrote on Thursday, is what you can call a grift.
“Acronym’s overall pitch — it’s just using the tools well. Like, ‘We're gonna use these tools well because we can,’” the former contractor told me. “I'm a lefty and this is my thing, and I am used to getting underpaid to do a favor for the cause, which no worker for a Koch brother has ever had to put up with. And Acronym paid me well, and they were chaotic and incompetent.”