The surge of Democratic candidates this cycle has given way to a new crop of campaign managers who are taking their first crack at managing millions of dollars.
And up until recently, there wasn’t a streamlined way for them to handle the money coming in and spend down to zero, which is the most important job for managers.
A trio of Democratic campaign veterans has started a campaign budgeting software to replace the often clunky and error-prone spreadsheets that used to dominate money management in the Democratic campaign world.
It’s called Warchest. California Democrat Michael Eggman was the first congressional candidate to use the software, during the 2016 cycle. Democrats in every contested Virginia House of Delegates race used it in 2017, as did Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff in his special election. Warchest now has 200 users on 100 races up and down the ballot. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is a client and gives access to the software to a wide range of campaigns. Campaigns can also pay for it themselves.
Software programs exist for other aspects of Democratic campaigning: NGP helps track fundraising and VAN helps field directors. Other budgeting software, like QuickBooks for example, was built for businesses and doesn’t always fill the specific needs of a campaign.
Three operatives saw the need for something better.
Josh Wolf and Conner Johnston met on California Democrat Ami Bera’s 2012 campaign, where they started developing the spreadsheet that would become the model for Warchest. Theirs was able to more accurately predict when campaigns would hit zero than most spreadsheets they’d worked with in the past.
Wolf later met Juliet Albin, who used the spreadsheet on Democrat Patrick Murphy’s Florida Senate race in 2016 when she was director of operations for the campaign. She’s now the COO of Warchest.
Albin used to make fun of Wolf (Murphy’s campaign manager) for not letting anyone touch the thermostat in the campaign office. Frugality was part of the campaign strategy.
Their own long nights fiddling with campaign spreadsheets and their imperative to conserve resources convinced them there’d be demand for a better system.
“There’s a lot of people in Silicon Valley that can figure out how to create tools for campaigns,” Wolf said. “But what we always go back to is we were building something to solve our own problem.”
A small team of coders built the software. The “dashboard” is like the homepage, where users can see their topline numbers. The cash-on-hand calculator is a popular feature because it allows campaigns to see when they will hit zero or enter the negative. Campaigns can also grant access to multiple users, so their consultants can see their budget, too.
Managers can zoom in or out of their budget forecast based on the time scope they need — either monthly, weekly or daily. That’s important because so much about campaign budgeting is about time — when is money expected to come in, and when is it expected to go out? TV reservation rates, for example, are cheaper earlier, but sometimes campaigns don’t have the money until later.
Warchest prides itself on its visualizations.
“I had something I could show my candidate,” said Brendan O’Sullivan, who managed Chris Kennedy’s losing Illinois gubernatorial primary campaign this year.
Excel allowed managers to track much of the same data, but it was harder and took longer, campaign managers said.
Lots of managers come to the job having overseen communications or field efforts or fundraising. They’re not usually accountants.
“In a cycle like this with so many candidates, managers are in their early twenties and are just getting used to paying rent, right, but they are working with these multimillion-dollar budgets,” Wolf said. “So visualizing the sensitive finances of the campaign, that makes a huge difference.”
In the past, the DCCC had developed a spreadsheet template that it made available to campaigns who wanted it for budgeting.
Many campaign managers had their own ways of budgeting, sometimes adapting spreadsheets they’d used on lower-tier races to statewide campaigns.
“It used to be like a chef bringing their own knives to the kitchen,” Wolf said. That made collaboration — with consultants and outside organizations like the DCCC — harder.
The old way was much more haphazard, said Shu-Yen Wei, campaign manager for Ohio Democratic congressional candidate Theresa Gasper. Pulling one wrong number from an Excel spreadsheet, for example, could throw off an entire projection.
“It used to be really easy to say, ‘Oh that person screwed up the budget.’ But if that many people are doing it, you kind of have to step back and say, ‘Maybe there’s a broader systemic issue that we need to address,’” Wolf said.
“It’s often the most mundane innovations that end up being the most consequential,” said former deputy executive director of the DCCC Ian Russell, who praised the tool especially as a way to teach novice managers.
The three Warchest founders at first relied on their own networks to pitch the software, but they’re now getting new clients organically. The earlier a campaign signs up, the cheaper the rate. Cost is typically several hundred dollars per month, depending on the size of the campaign and when it signed up.
Watch: What to Know in Arizona's Upcoming Special Election