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Unite America built the infrastructure for independent candidates in US elections

Now supporting 27 endorsed candidates across nine states, what began as a centrist two-person startup has become a full-fledged movement poised to disrupt the two-party system.

By Jane St. John


  • 1,000
  • members
  • 500
  • volunteers
  • 27
  • endorsed candidates

We connected with Tyler Fisher, Deputy Director of Unite America, a powerful emerging network for independent candidates around the United States, to learn more about how the organization used NationBuilder’s unique DataSync product to create the support infrastructure for 27 endorsed candidates, and counting.

JSJ: How would you summarize the mission of Unite America?

TF: Unite America is a movement of Republicans, Democrats and independents who are committed to electing common-sense independent candidates who can bridge the growing partisan divide in our politics. I really do view what we're doing as a movement. We have over 500 volunteers across the country, over 1,000 members, a really great community of key stakeholders and incredible candidates. We have 27 endorsed candidates and hundreds of others who have approached us that we're supporting in some way. Unite America merely exists to connect the dots and be a platform such that people can run for office competitively without having to do so as a member of a political party.

  • Data sharing
  • Data sharing

  • Customers running their networks on NationBuilder use tag sharing to pool data with neighboring chapters or their national office.

JSJ: How does that translate to the organization's everyday operations?

TF: When it comes to what we do on an everyday basis, it's recruiting candidates to run for office and training them to run for office. For those people who are running for office, it's about messaging to voters about the value of independent leadership and how independents can be effective in office. It's about training volunteers, empowering them to knock on doors, make phone calls, and write letters to the editor. It's about building a donor community of people who invest not only in our organization, but directly for independent candidates. It's about providing really great data infrastructure, not only to the movement and to Unite America, but also for candidates.

JSJ: What’s your day-to-day work like as Deputy Director?

TF: When I joined a year ago, we were two employees and today we're 12. Part of my role is to focus on that growth. How do we grow our organization, and at the same time, keep taking on new projects, figuring out the best systems and procedures, and empowering new team members who come on board?

I oversee an eclectic portfolio of things, which also includes the state partnerships (where we’ve been working with NationBuilder). We've got Washington independents and Unite New Mexico on NationBuilder, and we're looking forward to Unite Virginia in 2019, which will likely be emerging post elections. The state partnerships piece is where my role will probably focus in the future and where I'm really excited about the opportunities on a movement-building side to partner with NationBuilder.

Virginia is the thing that's next—they have off-year elections so we're gearing up for what 2019 looks like in Virginia. I'm super excited about that because I know that we'll have more candidates in Virginia, and I know that our supporter base will be bigger because it's starting from a much richer spot than it did in Colorado in 2017, so I’m really excited to use NationBuilder there.

JSJ: Of the milestones Unite America has reached thus far, what are you most proud of?

TF: Probably the biggest milestones are three major announcements of endorsed candidates. In January, we endorsed the first-ever slate of independent candidates running for State legislative office in Colorado. Over the course of eight months, we reached out to over 2,000 community leaders, talked to probably two hundred of them about running for office, took about 15 through a candidate training program, and at the end of the day, five stuck out their hand and said, "Yeah I'm running for office." So to see that slate come together in January was a really cool way to launch our brand.

Then, a month later, we were able to convene and connect three Independent candidates for governor and two for U.S. Senate. We did a national roll-out tour to Washington D.C., New York, L.A. and Seattle. We got to meet a lot of the NationBuilder team in L.A., which is really awesome. Later in the year, through partnerships with Washington independents and Unite New Mexico, we endorsed candidates running for office in those states.

Then, on July 19 we announced a total of 19 state legislative endorsements—including the five in Colorado and 14 others around the country running in nine different states. That has been a major milestone too, because it's really the first time that an organization has gone out there, endorsed a slate of candidates, and brought them together. We launched a crowd-funding campaign, and have raised over $85,000 to date for our candidate slate. There's no other organization that's out there doing that for independents.

At the end of the day, this is about candidates, this is not about us. We exist as a platform so that independents can run,  so our major milestones are always around candidates.

At the beginning of the year, the beginning of the cycle, our goal was to focus on Colorado; we were going to get five candidates, and we were going to run just one race in one state. For our 2018 goal, that was it. Now, we've gone from one state with endorsed candidates for state legislature, to nine states with endorsed candidates for state legislature. We're actually planting seeds for a movement all across the country.

JSJ: Congratulations on all of these developments—it's really inspiring. How has NationBuilder figured into the work you’ve been doing?

TF: We use NationBuilder for everything. NationBuilder is how we organize our volunteers and engage our new supporters. It’s how we do voter contact. We use integrations with CallHub and FieldEdge to engage existing supporters and new potential supporters, including voters. We use it for our email program, which has been quite successful. We have used it to build memberships, and are about to launch two things: 1) a new member portal, and 2) a new levels-of-giving program, where we'll have four different types of memberships with different perks. NationBuilder will be the workhorse behind all of that.

For our website, we've partnered with IVC Media and they've built a sophisticated theme that works really well on NationBuilder. I think for an organization of our size and scale, our website definitely punches above its weight, and that's a no small part due to NationBuilder. We’re on the new built-in payment processing system, which we really love. If I think about the tabs on the top of [the control panel], we use Website, we use Communication, we use Finances, we use People. So we're using all the capabilities of NationBuilder on the Unite America site.

  • Payment processing
  • Payment processing

  • Customers using NationBuilder to fundraise launch donation pages in minutes and seamlessly process one-time or recurring contributions.

We are also really dependent on Paths, and I'll give you a tangible example. Somebody signs up to be a founding member, we send them the Centrist Manifesto in a packet with a few stickers and a button. When they sign up to be a member, they get on a Path. So the first step is send them a book, the second step is have them submit their Uniter story, which can come in two different formats, it can be a recorded video or it could be a blog. Once they submit the story, the next step is: join the Facebook group. After that, there are three or four other steps.

JSJ: I know that Unite America is using DataSync—NationBuilder’s data management solution designed for consultants and campaigners. How has that been for you?

TF: The thing that is missing in the independent movement is voter data and the potential it has to organize a movement. The Republican and Democratic parties have built firms that have dumped hundreds of millions of dollars into building voter data and using it cycle-over-cycle. All of the Democrats are on one platform, and all of the Republicans are on one platform. One of the problems about the Independents is that they're so independent, that at the end of the cycle, all of the data and insights are completely lost.

There's all sorts of insights for independents on messaging, how best to talk to a volunteer, how to talk to a donor, and all those things. Of course, toward the end of independent campaigns, there's voter data that they collect. There's supporter data and there's volunteer data, and almost all of the time it doesn't go anywhere. It doesn't get used. One of the crazy things about what Ross Perot did, was that he ran for president, he got 19% of the vote, and it just dissipated. It didn't go anywhere. It didn't build over time into something bigger and better.

What DataSync allows is for us to build the community of folks who are supporting Independent candidates and Unite America. We could be using just NationBuilder to support Unite America, and that would be helping our organization grow.

Using NationBuilder would allow our organization to grow. Using DataSync allows our movement to grow.

Our endorsed candidates in Colorado, Maine, and Maryland are on our DataSync platform—allowing them to share data with each other and the movement at large in real-time.

JSJ: What personally moved you to work with Unite America?

TF: What motivated me was that it's one of the very few organizations that's doing something constructive about our broken politics. There's a lot of people who think that all we need to do is double-down on the left, or all we need to do is double-down on the right. I feel that Unite America's strategy, the fulcrum strategy, is achievable. Electing two to three independents to closely divided legislatures, denying both parties the majority, and then working with moderates in both parties to advance common-sense solutions is a tangible thing. People can see how it's possible, and it's proven to be effective.

In both Alaska and Maine, we have great case studies of what happens when neither party has the majority. In Alaska, for the first time in 30 years, when two independents got elected in 2016, Jason Grenn and Dan Ortiz, they caucused with three moderate Republicans and the Democrats to form a bipartisan majority coalition. That bipartisan majority coalition was able to tackle major challenges like the fiscal crisis in Alaska, through restructuring the permanent fund and doing so with an independent governor.

Jason just passed—in one of the best case studies of good reform bills being passed this legislative session—an ethics bill unanimously through the state senate signed by the independent governor that curtails the power of lobbyists, prevents foreign corporations from donating to state legislative candidates, and stops per diem pay when legislators don't get budgets passed on time. So, while there's this notion that politics is broken, Independents can be dealmakers on tough issues like immigration and health care, and taxes, etc. Independents can be effective that way.

The other really effective way the Independents can be effective is introducing new ideas and building broad coalitions, getting bills to pass unanimously that address real problems. Why? Because nobody can be the champion of those things because the parties are so entrenched. Once we have champions for reform, whether it be ethics reform, campaign finance reform, ranked choice voting, open primaries, top two primaries, or any of the number of other reform ideas out there, the challenge with a lot of those reforms is that they’re really long-term efforts—20 or 30-year projects, state by state, locality by locality. When we can get independents in office who champion those structure reform ideas, we can get to them faster.

I love the work that FairVote is doing, and that No Labels is doing, that Represent.Us is doing, and that IVN is doing. I think all of their work can be complemented and championed by independents in office. So that's why I think the strategy is right. I think that independents are what we need in our politics.

JSJ: What makes NationBuilder a good fit for your organization?

TF: Why do I feel that Unite America and the independent movements partner with NationBuilder? It's because we're aligned on the long-term objective. We are aligned philosophically on why our organizations and platforms exist, which is to provide people with the tools they need to be successful leaders. I think that in our partnership, while there's a business relationship, there's definitely a commitment on both sides to achieving each other's goals. I couldn't be more proud of that.

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