Keya Dannenbaum is founder and CEO of ElectNext, a website that matches voters with the most compatible candidates. After working on political campaigns at both the national and local levels, Dannenbaum, a graduate of Stanford University, saw a need to help people become more connected to campaign issues and political contenders. In 2011, she participated in Dreamit Ventures, a Philadelphia venture capital firm that supports start-ups with both office space and investment. From there, she launched ElectNext, which enables people to answer questions about their political views and discuss the issues that they care about, and then matches them with the candidates that best reflect their values. Dannenbaum sat down with Knowledge@Wharton High School’s Leigh Silver to talk election technology and the issues on voters’ minds in this presidential election year.
Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Knowledge@Wharton High School: Keya Dannenbaum is founder and CEO of ElectNext, a website that matches voters with the most compatible candidates. Keya calls ElectNext the eHarmony for elections. Keya, thank you for joining us.
Keya Dannenbaum: Thank you for having me.
KWHS: How did you come up with the idea for ElectNext?
Dannenbaum: There’s a long story and a short story. The long story is that in college, I studied international relations and politics. I spent a couple of years after I graduated in South America and India, working on global human rights issues. I started a PhD in international politics. When I got to the PhD, after having spent two years on the ground doing direct service work, that ivory tower academia environment wasn’t for me. I spent two years in the degree program [until] 2007, just on the cusp of the big 2008 presidential election. I left [school] and got my start in politics, working for Hillary Clinton in 2008. When that campaign ended, I spent two years on the ground in New Haven, Conn., doing hyper-local politics — city council races and mayoral races.
Part of my story is the striking disparity that I saw in knowledge, engagement and participation between how people interact with politics, particularly at the national level, and how they interact with it at the local level. I was running city council races that I won by 12 votes, or lost by 19 votes. And these were people who had real effects on education, crime policy, tax policy — in ways that very closely and intimately affected people’s lives.
[My number one inspiration for ElectNext] was the observation that at the local level, it is incredibly difficult to stay on top of politics. The short story is [that] I had a very personal experience with this. After spending three years on the ground working on campaigns, I moved to Philadelphia to start an MBA at Wharton. It was 2010, a big mid-term election year. I got so busy with my program and my new city, that I missed the voter registration deadline. [I] had no idea who was running, couldn’t vote and didn’t participate. It was such a shocking and personally disappointing moment when I realized that I had missed it. I thought to myself, “If it is this hard for someone who really cares about politics and has been involved, then of course it’s this hard for everybody else. Let’s think of a solution.”
KWHS: Do you consider yourself a social entrepreneur?
Dannenbaum: Absolutely. First and foremost, particularly with ElectNext, we are a mission-driven company. It is our goal to serve every voter in every election, and allow him or her to easily vote his or her values all the way down the ballot. That is the primary driver of this organization. And yes, we are organized as a company. We want to create a sustainable business model to support that mission.
KWHS: How connected are voters to the key ballot issues today?
Dannenbaum: I think voters are most connected to key ballot issues in places where they’re experiencing a personal pain. If you are a head of household whose mortgage is underwater [you owe more money on the house than it is actually worth], you are a student who has just graduated from college and is saddled with debt, or you have a family member who has been sent to war in a foreign country — those are the issues that become very salient. Where it’s harder for voters to stay connected is with all of the other issues that are still very important when it comes to choosing our elected representatives, but may not be as salient in terms of their pain point. That’s what ElectNext is trying to help people do – to keep tabs on that whole array of issues that ultimately you will care about, and that will become relevant within a political term or an election cycle.
KWHS: Are people from the younger generation [focused on] any particular issues in this next election?
Dannenbaum: The number one thing that I’m hearing about is education policy — spanning from the primary and high school levels up to higher education. The charter school movement [a push to have more primary and secondary schools that get public money but are not subject to the same rules and regulations as public schools] is becoming a really hot topic in innovation [and] in public education. When it comes to higher education, there is all kinds of talk, debate, conversation, about, “Is this the right structure? What’s going on with tuition? Is it worth it to have student debt? What are my employment opportunities, and how do I weigh the costs and benefits of these decisions?” So far, that has been the number one topic on the minds of the younger generation today.
KWHS: [ElectNext] helps people create a “political preference profile.” What exactly is that?
Dannenbaum: We are trying to figure out who you are politically. The way we do that on ElectNext is a very straightforward process. We first ask you which issues are most important to you. We allow you to weigh them, so we can get a sense of how important those issues are. Then we ask you some questions based on the issues that you’ve selected, so that we can get a sense for the nuance within each issue, and where you stand on particular questions. Just like you might create a social profile elsewhere, or a dating profile on a dating site, this is your political profile.
KWHS: As momentum builds toward the presidential election later this year, what trends are you seeing?
Dannenbaum: There are two big defining characteristics of this cycle. One is the money. With various rulings on campaign finance in recent years, you’re seeing the ability of corporations and wealthy people to donate unlimited amounts of money, and to not have to immediately disclose those donations. [This has led to] unprecedented levels of spending. Largely, that has manifested in television advertising — negative television advertising in particular. The other [characteristic of the cycle] is data. That’s much more under the surface, and not nearly as apparent to a consumer of this election cycle. Technology is in a place where people are creating profiles on Facebook and Twitter and elsewhere and consuming and sharing information online. [People are] interacting with campaigns, companies and marketers in all of these ways, [which is] allowing political organizations to create incredibly detailed profiles on who you are. That underlying data structure has been a defining characteristic of this campaign. In my opinion, the candidate who wins the data race is going to win this election.
KWHS: Do you think that ElectNext is going to be incorporated with some of the social media platforms people already use, such as Facebook, Twitter or Google Plus?
Dannenbaum: Right now, we’re pretty independent of any existing social platform. But that’s due to the fact that we’re new. What we’ve got out there is what we consider our minimally viable product. It is the level of sophistication that allows you as a voter and user of ElectNext to see the value, but it’s just step one for us. We want to get to a place where we are much more tightly integrated with Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus, and even some of the other platforms that are out there.
KWHS: Are young people engaged in voting and the election process? Or do they have apathy towards these issues?
Dannenbaum: I do think that people are engaged. They certainly want to be engaged. The end of high school and the beginning of college when you’re eligible to vote — in my own personal experience — was a time of engagement and awakening. It was extremely exciting to all of a sudden be paying attention to issues, and to be able to take action based on my opinions and my perspective on those issues. At the same time, there are incredible competing demands on people’s time and attention. Yes, all the information is out there. But lots of distracting information is also out there.
There’s this new book called The Information Diet by Clay Johnson. His basic analogy is [that if] you put all the food that you could possibly eat in front of somebody and they consumed it, then they would be fat, have health problems and really have gotten into a disastrous state. That is the exact same thing that’s going on with information. All this information’s out there and people are consuming it. But, what are they consuming? Are they doing it in a healthy way? And is it resulting in a person who is actually informed and able to engage? The “information diet” is this idea that we should be selective and careful about what we’re consuming, particularly online.
If I could give any piece of advice it would be, think before you click. Think about what you’re consuming and the fact that when you do consume something online, it is much more likely to show up in somebody else’s feed, or at the top of a hot news list. That is affecting what everybody else is consuming, too.
KWHS: Do you think that ElectNext is a filter for the [excess election] information?
Dannenbaum: That is exactly how we see ourselves. I’m not affiliated with that book or that author in any way. But that message resonates with us, because it is so aligned with our purpose.
KWHS: Is it important for teenagers to understand the voting process, including party choice, even before they reach a voting age?
Dannenbaum: Absolutely. The number one predictor about anybody’s political choice is going to be the party identification of [his or her] parents. If your parents are Democrats, you are most likely to continue to vote Democrat. If your parents are Republicans, you are most likely to continue to vote Republican. In other words, our political choices are handed down from generation to generation.
In the 2008 presidential campaign, I observed that flow of political identification totally reverse and flip on its head. Students in high school and in college were, for the most part, getting very excited about Barack Obama’s campaign and convincing their parents to vote the way that they felt inspired, or that they felt their allegiances aligning. It was so incredible to me to watch that happen, because it was such a fundamental shift in a paradigm that political scientists have come to believe in. I would say that even before you, as an individual, can go out to cast a ballot on election day, being informed, being engaged, being able to make interesting, informed arguments and decisions based on the issues, can have an effect on what ends up happening. You are able to talk to and to share your ideas with the people who can vote. And when your turn comes, you are that much more ready, because you have a history of participating.
KWHS: What was the most valuable experience you had while working in politics?
Dannenbaum: The first thing I say is that everybody should do it. It was an incredibly important experience for me. And that doesn’t mean that you have to do it for a year, as a career, or even full-time. Volunteering on a political campaign, whether it’s presidential or your local city council, is a must-do for any American citizen. The number one thing that I got out of it was understanding the extent to which political decision-making has a direct impact on our lives. [It was valuable] watching the way that effect shifts with the level of government. It was one thing to be on a presidential campaign and talking about big ideas like foreign policy and the economy. It was a very different thing to be on a city council race in New Haven, Conn., where the issues were, “Should we paint a crosswalk? How should we fund this school? Should there be an after-school program? Should the police force be doing driving beats or walking beats?” [It was interesting to see] how much of an effect on day-to-day life those political decisions carry. When you watch it on TV, it can be theater. But at the end of the day, it’s about people.
KWHS: Thank you for coming in.
Dannenbaum: Thanks for having me.
How is technology affecting the election process?
What do you think about Dannenbaum’s assertion that we should be selective and careful about what we’re consuming, particularly online?
Are you and your peers engaged in the election process? Do you think that young people understand the issues and identify with the candidates?
What issue do you care most about in the upcoming U.S. presidential election? Post your comments to the story and on our Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/whartonhs.