THE DIGITAL 50: The 50 Hottest People In Online Politics

Tabitha Hale

Photo: Courtesy of Tabitha Hale

In the months since President Barack Obama’s re-election, the 2012 campaign cycle has become synonymous with digital politics.Obama’s campaign dominated in its use of tech.

The Romney campaign became known for its embarrassing tech failure on the day of the election.

The GOP is now desperate to catch up in this race.

From social media and data mining to open-source initiatives and online organising, digital tools are reshaping the way that citizens interact with campaigns, candidates, and even the government itself.

Over the past decade, a growing cadre of political professionals has been leading this shift, working to harness digital tools to make campaigns and government run more efficiently, and bring democracy into the information age. 

To celebrate their success, Business Insider has compiled a list of the top 50 people who are at the forefront of political innovation.

Patrick Ruffini, Founder, Engage

The de facto chief digital evangelist for the GOP, Ruffini has been at the centre of the convergence of tech and politics on the right for upwards of a decade -- first as a member of George W. Bush's 2004 re-election team, and then as the eDirector for the Republican National Committee.

Since 2007, he's been running his own firm, Engage, which has been a leading force in moving politics and campaigns into the digital realm.

'We're trying to get people to buy into a holistic strategy around digital,' Ruffini told Business Insider. 'It's not about the technology or the tools -- it's about fostering a culture and an ecosystem, and about getting people in politics to adopt a geek mindset.'

Joe Rospars, Founding Partner and Creative Director, Blue State Digital/Chief Digital Strategist, Obama For America

Teddy Goff, Digital Director, Obama For America

Another Blue State Digital alumnus, Goff worked his way up from an internship on Obama's 2008 campaign to become Digital Director of Obama for America.

In that role, the 27-year-old Goff ran a team of 200-plus digital strategists, who together harnessed the transformative power of social media and online content in a way that no campaign had ever done before.

'What the rise of social has meant is that every single person -- not just the undecided voter living in a battleground state, but the Obama supporter living in New York or California -- has a role to play in our politics, and the chance to help decide the outcome,' Goff told Business Insider. 'President Obama had around 34 million Facebook fans on election day. Those people were friends with 98 per cent of the U.S.-based Facebook population -- that's more than the number of people who vote.'

The biggest takeaway, Goff added, was the realisation that the campaign's supporters actually had a lot more power than the campaign itself.

'The most important thing we could do was keep them engaged, keep them inspired, and put them to work,' he said. 'That's a very different mindset than one that's all about squeezing every last penny out of people, or trying to maximise impressions whether or not the content is any good.'

Matt Lira, Senior Advisor, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor

Marie Ewald, Deputy Digital Director, Obama For America

As Goff's right-hand woman, Ewald was indispensable in executing the Obama campaign's revolutionary digital strategy, and in overseeing OFA's massive digital team.

In particular, Ewald played a big role in overseeing digital analytics department, spearheading the data-mining and relentless A/B testing that defined OFA's digital strategy. She also played a key part in pioneering OFA's groundbreaking social networking and online fundraising efforts, helping the campaign to build a grassroots army of volunteers.

'It was about building relationships with people,' Ewald told Business Insider. 'And then empowering those people to become involved in the political sphere, and giving them the most user-friendly, advanced tools we could to do that.'

Lauren Miller, Digital Director, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)

A six-year veteran of Blue State Digital, Miller left the firm in 2012 to run digital strategy for Warren's Massachusetts Senate bid. As the campaign's new media director, Miller established of the most sophisticated digital programs outside of the Obama campaign.

She is now moving that operation to Capitol Hill, where she is the digital director of Warren's new Senate office. In that role, Miller faces the daunting task of keeping Warren's national network of supporters engaged in the decidedly unsexy process of legislating.

'We're attempting to take the same excitement and energy for the campaign and translate that into a grassroots army that's excited about a legislative agenda,' she told Business Insider. 'It's one of the trickiest things to do.'

It's also a new challenge for Miller, who, prior to leaving Blue State Digital, was known as one of the best emailers in the digital campaign biz. Miller says that she is still trying to navigate labyrinthe Senate regulations and adjust to the slower pace of governance.

But she added that she hopes to be a 'trailblazer' for other Senate offices as they incorporate digital organising and communications strategies into their work on the Hill.

Erie Meyer, Editorial Director, Consumer Finance Protection Bureau/Founder, TechLadyMafia

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau -- the embattled agency created as part of Obama's Wall Street overhaul -- has become a mecca for digital do-gooders and open-source evangelists. The agency runs itself like a tech startup, with the goal of creating an efficient, participatory, transparent government that replaces ideology and partisanship with data and results.

As a digital strategist for the CFPB, Meyer is responsible for using helping consumers use the Bureau's tools to help navigate financial decisions -- a job that Meyer describes as 'thrilling.'

'Before, when I was working in digital advocacy, it was all about agitating toward what could be,' Meyer told Business Insider. 'At CFPB, everyday we're trying to see what we can actually do.'

When she's not at the Bureau, Meyer is the co-founder of TechLadyMafia, an online community whose only membership requirement, she says, 'is being awesome and being a Tech Lady.' Members, which include women from all areas of tech and all parts of the world, primarily communicate through the group's listserv, as well as through its Tumblr and Twitter feed, @TechLadyMafia.

Harper Reed, Chief Technology Officer, Obama For America

Carol Davidsen, Media Analytics, Obama for America

Amelia Showalter, Director of Digital Analytics, Obama For America

Toby Fallsgraff and Martha Patzer, Email Gurus, Obama For America

Nick Schaper, Senior Vice President, Engage

Marci Harris and Rachna Choudhry, CEO and Chief Marketing Officer, POPVOX

POPVOX was born in 2009, when Choudhry, then a federal lobbyist, and Harris, then a congressional staffer, were seated next to each other at a Washington dinner party, and shared their gripes about the sluggishness of communications on the Hill.

The POPVOX site, which launched in 2011, functions as an aggregator for all of the bills that go through Congress, providing information about who has gone on the record supporting or opposing legislation. organisations can build their own pages to support or oppose bills on POPVOX, and individuals can weigh in to leave a message. POPVOX then verifies and distributes those messages, with the relevant metadata, to legislators, streamlining the information in a way that easily fits into their data systems.

'This is really the first time that there has been a public record of what Congress is hearing,' Harris told Business Insider. 'It provides a level of transparency that has really never existed in Congress, and certainly has never existed for the rest of us.'

By simplifying the process, POPVOX has also helped to increase engagement with Congress, Harris said, empowering individuals to participate in the discussion surrounding legislation in a way that they may not have done before.

Matthew Gagnon, Director of Digital Strategy, Republican Governors Association

Aaron Strauss, Director of Data and Targeting, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee

Strauss has been a leading proponent of incorporating scientific experimentation and data analysis into politics for the past decade, conducting work that has revolutionised the way that Democratic campaigns and progressive groups identify and target persuadable voters.

Strauss began his work in politics during the 2004 presidential campaign, when he built a next-generation voter database to help campaigns organise supporters and identify persuadable voters. In 2006, he wrote a program that allowed canvassers to use Google maps, a tool that is still the basis for canvassing software used by Democratic campaigns today. He also got his Ph.D in microtargeting and political methodology, completing his dissertation on tailoring messages to specific audiences.

For the 2012 election cycle, Strauss was tapped to help the DCCC overcome the GOP's spending advantage with a heightened data and targeting effort.

At the DCCC, Strauss revolutionised the committee's polling by introducing in-house robo surveys designed to help the campaign better identify which districts to target. He conducted experiments and engineered new types of models to find the most persuadable voters within those districts. And he worked with Catalist to develop automated modelling, enabling these tactics to be deployed rapidly across all competitive districts, maximizing targeting efficiency.

Strauss will leave the DCCC at the end of this month for a new project. He wouldn't give details, except to say that he will be 'further innovating the space of digital analytics and politics, figuring out what works and what can be done better to target voters and improve communications strategies as a whole.'

John Lee, Chief Operating Officer, NGP VAN

Since 2006, Lee has played a leading role in developing and implementing the Voter Activation Network, the voter file and volunteer databases that power the Democratic National Party's VoteBuilder, and which are widely credited with helping Democrats gain a data edge over their Republican counterparts.

As COO of VAN, Lee also played a critical role in the 2011 merger of NGP and VAN, which married the two companies to provide clients with an integrated suite of campaign software, including fundraising, field organising, and online digital tools that help Democratic parties, campaigns, labour unions, and non-profit groups use their data more efficiently.

Laura Quinn, CEO, Catalist

As CEO of Catalist, Quinn runs the firm that, together with NGP VAN, forms the one-two punch of data management for progressive groups, including labour unions and non-profit advocacy organisations. Under her leadership, Catalist has expanded its client base from 19 in 2006 to more than 1,000 organisations.

According to Quinn, Catalist is responsible for collecting the massive amounts of data about voters -- from the basic commercial data used in corporate marketing to the more useful information about civic activity, including what groups individuals belong to, their voting records, and how they participate in political and civic life.

'In the past, groups would collect data specifically about their membership, but get rid of all the data they collected about other people,' Quinn told Business Insider. 'This gives groups a memory of their conversations, and helps them figure out what their strategies should be to better connect with people going forward.'

Although the information that groups collect about individuals is proprietary, Catalist also helps its clients by using the aggregate data collected by all of the groups to inform predictive models about voter behaviour.

'It's a co-op, in effect,' Quinn said. 'Progressives didn't have the resources to individually do the data searching in the way that we can do, but together they can cut those costs. We give them much more capacity between elections.'

Cyrus Krohn, Co-founder, Crowdverb

A veteran of Microsoft and the RNC, Krohn has been on a quest to help the GOP regain its technological edge since departing his post as the RNC's chief digital strategist following the 2008 election.

To fulfil his mission, Krohn and fellow Republican digital strategists Todd Herman and Sally Poliak co-founded Crowdverb, a Seattle-based digital mobilization startup uses a data-driven approach to better identify voter perceptions and behaviours and use that information to inform online mobilization and communications strategies.

Although Crowdverb operates outside of the party system, Krohn continues to be a leading voice in challenging the Republican Party to revamp its digital strategy.

'As the Republican Party determines what its going to do with itself, how it is going to restructure, the clock continues to tick,' Krohn told Business Insider in November. 'That is a problem that we cannot wait until six months before the midterm cycle to address.'

'We've got to change the paradigm from looking at ourselves as a campaign-to-campaign party, and make the decision that the technology is going to be at the forefront of how we conduct ourselves, and use the data from that approach to inform how we market and communicate and interact and get rid of a lot of the subjectiveness, and define our strategies and tactics more scientifically.'

Bob Ellsworth, Chief Technology Officer, Crowdverb

A longtime tech strategist, Ellsworth was a lead architect of the Republican Party's next-generation digital platform.

As the RNC's Senior Fellow of Technology from 2008 to 2010, he built the party's online marketing tools and digital outreach, as well as the platform architecture for gop.com and its related rapid response microsites.

At Crowdverb, Ellsworth is responsible for building the firm's data systems, applying the lessons he learned in the political sphere to both campaigns and corporate clients.

For campaigns, Ellsworth said, the next challenge will be using data not only to target voters, but also to figure out how to allocate resources most efficiently.

'We're in the first pitch of the first inning of a double header,' he said. 'This is just the beginning.'

Betsy Hoover, Director of Online organising, Obama For America

As digital organising director for Obama's 2012 campaign, Hoover led the team's groundbreaking integration of digital tools into traditional campaign organising.

Those efforts were largely centered around Dashboard, the campaign's virtual field office that enabled volunteers to connect with their neighbourhood team, organise events, call voters, and even set up their own fundraising page to get their friends to donate to the campaign.

'We still have this distinction between online organising and offline organising, but that isn't right. We should just organise,' Hoover told Business Insider. 'People are people online and offline, so the more integrated and holistic the approach, the better the experience is for the user, and the more innovative we can be with ways to reach people in a coherent and smart way, the better.'

Hoover is now a partner at 270 Strategies, a new grassroots campaign consulting firm started by OFA national field director Jeremy Bird and battleground state director Mitch Stewart.

Chris Hughes, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, The New Republic

Mindy Finn, Politics and Advocacy, Twitter

Twitter became ubiquitous in politics during the 2012 election cycle, both as a campaign tool and as a primary means of communication between lawmakers, staffers, their constituents, and the press.

Finn has played a key role in making Twitter the go-to social media platform in the political sphere. As the head of Twitter's strategic politics and advocacy partnerships, she works with political, government, and non-profit groups on developing their Twitter strategies to raise awareness, drive action, and engage in real-time response.

A former Republican digital strategist, Finn says that Twitter has simplified the way that candidates communicate with the media online. Going forward, she believes that the microblogging platform will become even more integral to politics, with campaigns building their Twitter presence on 'day one.'

'Successful campaigns will have no choice but to engage at all times,' Finn said. 'Whereas the official statement used to be the historical record of a campaign, in future campaigns, if it's not shared through social media, it's as if it didn't happen.'

Katie Harbath, Associate Manager for Policy, Facebook DC

Harbath has been involved in the GOP's digital efforts for the past decade, working on the team that ran the RNC's website in 2004, and directing the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee's digital strategy during the 2010 election cycle.

Now, as associate manager for policy at Facebook, Harbath helps Republican lawmakers and candidates leverage the social media platform and make sure they are using the site's new features in the best way.

'It's exciting to be working for a company that's setting the code and breaking boundaries for what people can do with technology,' Harbath told Business Insider. 'The challenge is to take the culture of FB and apply it to an industry like politics.'

'There is still a long way to go,' she added, 'but I actually think there will always be a long way to go -- this is always going to be an evolving space.'

Ben Smith, Editor-In-Chief, BuzzFeed

Vincent Harris, CEO of Harris Media

Harris was the digital mastermind behind Texas Republican Ted Cruz's Tea Party-driven 2012 Senate campaign, which harnessed social media and online fundraising tools to build up a grassroots network of support for the then-relatively unknown candidate.

A Texas-based political consultant, Harris has tapped into the deep pool of digital talent in Austin to build up his own communications and marketing firm, a full-service digital shop that designs and builds websites and online fundraising tools, makes web videos, manages in-bound data and rapid response, and places online ads.

In the wake of the 2012 election, Harris has also been a vocal critic of the Republican Party's digital strategy, pushing the RNC to hire a digital director to implement a long-term, multimillion dollar strategy that will close the tech gap between the GOP and Democrats.

Erica Sackin, Digital Outreach, Obama for America

Laura Olin, Social Media Outreach, Obama For America

Liz Mair, Founder, Mair Strategies

A former RNC digital strategist, Mair now runs her own online communications consulting shop, which advises a roster of Fortune 500, major advocacy and political clients. In 2012, Mair advised Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker on digital communications strategy for his successful June recall campaign, liaising with Internet media to help the campaign circulate its message online.

In the wake of the GOP's 2012 losses, Mair has challenged the party to rethink its strategies, and particularly its data mining technology and digital communications, in order to close the gap with Democrats before 2016.

'Technological innovation and adoption, as well as the democratization of media, present such a wealth of opportunities for campaigns to do things better, faster and cheaper,' Mair told Business Insider. 'But in order to capitalise on all that, people have got to get out of their comfort zones, confront their fears, engage and get moving.'

Heather Holdridge, Director of Digital Advocacy Strategy, Planned Parenthood

Gerrit Lansing, Digital Director, National Republican Congressional Committee

Jess Morales, Senior New Media Strategist, AFL-CIO

During the 2012 election cycle, Morales was part of the team that built the Obama campaign's Dashboard, the program that interacted with volunteers to find a local field team and volunteer for assignments in districts close to them where help was needed.

Now, she is helping to integrate the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the U.S., into the world of digital politics.

'A lot of work we did at OFA applies here,' Morales said. 'It's a gigantic institution that operates on many years of history and tradition, but is also trying to figure out how to engage in digital world.'

Morales said she is helping to work on a social call tool that will attempt to connect volunteers with friends who are targeted voters.

'We've learned over and over that when people receive calls from people they know, they're infinitely more receptive,' Morales said.

Tim Cameron, Director of Digital Media, House Republican Conference

Beth Becker, Founder, Progressive PST

Brittany Cohan, Deputy Communications Director, Citizens United

Gabriela Schneider and Liz Bartolomeo, Sunlight Foundation

The non-partisan Sunlight Foundation has been at the forefront of a growing effort to use open-source tools to track political influence, improve government transparency, and hold lawmakers accountable.

The organisation's digital efforts have been spearheaded by its communications team, under the leadership of Schneider and Bartolomeo. Together, the pair have helped Sunlight increase its online exposure and engagement, and build up an army of volunteer civic hackers.

In particular, the Sunlight Foundation has been a political pioneer in using Tumblr for political communications, using the microblogging platform to pass around the organisation's pretty data visualizations. What started off as an experiment is now the Foundation's largest social media presence, Bartolomeo said, with a 473% increase in Tumblr followers in 2012 alone.

The Sunlight Foundation has hit the ground running in 2013, launching two new open-source projects that will help users track legislative information and open-government related events in all 50 states.

Juliana Rotich, Executive Director, Ushahidi

A longtime tech strategist and prolific blogger, Rotich is a leader in developing digital tools for crowdsourcing crisis information and leveraging the power of the Internet to uncover violence.

Rotich's nonprofit group, Ushahidi, was originally inspired by the violence in Kenya's 2007 presidential election, and its software has been used to help the media cover violence in Chile, Haiti, Chile, and the Congo. Ushahidi, Swahili for 'Testimony,' now specialises in developing free and open source software for information collection, interactive mapping and data curation.

Rotich, a native of Kenya, got her degree in computer science from the University of Missouri, Kansas City, and is a TED Senior Fellow and vice chair of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Data Driven Development.

Matt DeLuca, GOP Digital Strategist

Steve Geer and Dan McSwain, Democratic digital strategists

Geer and McSwain, two veteran digital strategists on the Democratic side, were behind the guerrilla-style digital strategy of American Bridge super-PAC during the 2012 election.

According to American Bridge communications director Chris Harris, the pair was particularly helpful with the super-PACs 'Mitt Gets Worse' project, a popular LGBT-rights campaign, and its Actually.org celebrity/comedian video series, which racked up more than 2 million views.

In addition to their work with American Bridge, Geer and McSwain also ran digital operations for the 2012 National Voter Registration Day, which registered nearly 400,000 voters in just one day. And they've been running Wikipedia's online fundraising strategy for the past three years.

Now that the 2012 campaign is over, the pair has split up to work on separate projects: Geer is running digital strategy for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's 'Demand A Plan' gun control campaign, while McSwain is heading up digital communications for Voto Latino's immigration reform efforts.

Tabitha Hale, New Media Director, Franklin centre for Government & Public Integrity

Sacha Dratwa, Social Media, Israel defence Forces

Glenn Beck, The Blaze/The Blaze TV

After disappearing from the spotlight after his Fox News departure in 2011, Beck has re-emerged as a prominent voice in conservative media through TheBlaze and TheBlaze TV.

Beck's one-hour show is the centrepiece of TheBlaze TV, but he has built something of a digital empire with other contributors gaining a following. The B.S. of A. with Brian Sack, a weekly comedy show, and the daily news show Real News from The Blaze are two of the examples of Beck's expansion from personality to media conglomerate.

Beck also has some more wild plans to expand on his newfound digital success. This summer, he plans to host an event in Salt Lake City this summer called Man In The Moon, something his website describes as an 'exciting new stage spectacle by America's premiere storyteller.'

Andrew Sullivan, Founder, The Dish

Early this year, Sullivan made the surprising announcement that he would split from The Daily Beast and run his blog independently. It's a daring new media venture that is rather unprecedented.

But if anyone can pull it off, it's someone like Sullivan, one of the few Internet brands in political media who can drive a news cycle with his opinions. On the other hand, it's risky -- Sullivan left a life under the institutional umbrella of The Daily Beast that provided him with financial security and prominent billing.

But if his project works -- which Sullivan concedes is still a big if -- he sees the tides of web journalism changing. He said some of the bigger names in the media world could follow him into independence if his model succeeds. Nate Silver was one name he mentioned to Business Insider.

Sullivan told Business Insider that he has raised about $575,000 total for his new venture by the middle of February.

Emily Zanotti, Blogger, NakedDC

Erick Erickson, Editor, RedState

Over the past four years, Erickson has become one of the most powerful and influential conservatives on the web. His blog, RedState, provides a good barometer of conservative sentiment, and has gained influence over the past few years, breaking scoops about the Republican Party.

Erickson was a go-to conservative contributor on CNN until he left the network this year for Fox News. He is also one of the more realistic-minded conservatives on the web, predicting a year before the election that Mitt Romney would lose because of, well, the reasons he eventually lost.

Anthea Watson Strong, Senior Politics Project Manager, Obama For America

After working for the Obama campaign for the first half of 2012, Watson Strong joined the Google Politics team to help the company's efforts to build online tools that inform people of essential voting information, such as polling place location and directions, and candidate lists.

The role is an extension of Watson Strong's work at the New organising Institute, where she ran the Voting Information Project -- 'an effort to collect, standardize and distribute, through an open API, a nationwide database of polling locations and election information.' That data was used by Google, Microsoft, Foursquare, and AT&T.

Matthew Dybwad, Digital/Media Partner, CRAFT

Nate Silver, Founder, FiveThirtyEight

Perhaps no one boosted his standing off the 2012 campaign as much as Silver, who correctly predicted the outcome in all 50 states in November. He also nearly nailed the popular result with his projection model.

Overall, Silver has revolutionised how ordinary Americans view polling and the importance placed on empirical data. The question now is whether Silver can continue to dominate the conversation outside of election years.

Rachel Haot, Chief Digital Officer, New York City

As the first Chief Digital Officer of New York City, Haot is charged with fulfilling Mayor Michael Bloomberg's goal of making New York 'the most advanced digital city in the world.'

She is responsible for building New York's first-ever 'digital roadmap,' which she says is a 'holistic plan for modernizing the city.' The plan includes goals to expand Internet access -- including free WiFi in subways and public parks -- increase the city's social media footprint, improve government transparency, and strengthen the city's relationship with New York's growing tech sector.

'The world is changing in the ways that we connect and communicate with one another,' Haot said. 'I think that we will need to continue to focus on that as a city.'

The fact that Haot's position even exists is a testament to the way that the Internet has changed how government communicates with its citizens. Under her leadership, New York has taken a proactive role in leading that change, growing its social networks to more than 2.4 million followers across 280+ channels, including Twitter, Facebook, FourSquare, and Tumblr. She is also overseeing the redesign of nyc.gov, which is scheduled to be unveiled later this year.

These online networks underwent a major stress-test during Hurricane Sandy, which required the city to make sure its message was consistent across platforms, while also informing New York residents about emergency services. In the wake of the storm, Haot oversaw the city's partnership with Google on its Crisis Map, and sought ways to expand the city's digital partnerships to help recovery efforts.

Cory Booker, Mayor, Newark

The mayor of relatively small Newark, Booker has become a national household name largely part because of his grasp of social media. He has been active on Twitter for the past few years, famously turning Twitter into a tool to aid his constituents during a massive 2010 snowstorm.

Since then, Booker has continued to dominate the Twittersphere and use it as a means of engaging with his constituents. During Hurricane Sandy, he invited neighbours who had lost electricity to his home to power up. In January, he responded to a call to pick up a dog out of the freezing cold. He has even used the medium to engage in a back-and-forth with a reporter over a story he didn't like.

In the past year, Booker has also branched out his use of digital media. Booker is one of the big names backing #waywire, a new online video network aimed at young people.

Matt Drudge, Founder, The Drudge Report

No one can single-handedly dominate a news cycle with as little effort as Matt Drudge, the conservative blogger behind the Drudge Report. Drudge and his site can drive the political conversation through a scoop -- whether or not it turns out to be accurate -- or by placing prominence on a story on The Drudge Report. And through it all, it's usually no more than a sentence or two that leaves his readers with exactly the impression he wants to give them.

Although the Drudge Report site has not changed much since its 1997 debut, Drudge's influence continues to grow -- he announced on his Facebook page at the end of 2012 that it was his biggest traffic year ever, with more than 11 billion visitors.

Now check out these other up-and-comers...

NOW WATCH: Briefing videos

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.