Last month about two dozen engineers, designers, and product managers met on Zoom for a check-in on a software project: an app to help people register to vote by mail. The devs had pedigrees from places like Google and Amazon. Much of the discussion involved weighing each design tweak for its potential to entice users to register—or to irritate them so much that they bail. For instance, the merely curious or the mildly paranoid might balk at being asked for a phone number and jump off long before getting to the end point of finger-scrawling their signature. “We learned this from the Bloomberg campaign,” says one of the tech leads. “Every single element can drag you down.”
Mike Bloomberg’s $1 billion presidential campaign is over—having crashed and burned after Elizabeth Warren’s blowtorch attack in the Las Vegas debate last February—but part of it survives as a hundred-person operation dedicated to electing Joe Biden and other Democrats. This is Hawkfish, the surviving digital component of the massive army that Bloomberg mustered last November to try to get the former New York City mayor into the White House. Hawkfish has been described as everything from the secret weapon to counter the powerful data operation of Trump’s digital guru Brad Parscale, to a stealth operation to neuter the increasingly progressive wing of the Democratic party. But until now, its operations have been conducted in secrecy. Months after the company was formed in 2019, a CNBC team unsuccessfully tried to locate the building where Hawkfish employees worked, dead-ending the search at the address of Bloomberg’s accountant. (The real headquarters, pre-Covid, was near Times Square.)
Recently, WIRED got an inside look at Hawkfish and found that the firm built on the Cult of Mayor Mike is still working to make its mark on the presidential campaign. What Hawkfish brings to digital politics is costly data, bought with Bloomberg’s billions and augmented with research and analysis from digital warriors on leave from the tech world. (More than once I heard that the reason for leaving a cushy job in tech was to explain to as-yet-unconceived grandchildren that they didn’t sit out the most critical election of our time.) But as with his presidential campaign, Bloomberg has learned that his name and money don’t automatically equal success. Hawkfish lost its bid for the biggest potential client: It won’t be the main data provider to the Biden 2020 campaign organization.
Still, the company has quietly won the business of several clients, including the Democratic National Committee, two well-funded SuperPacs, and others it has vowed to keep confidential. Democrats may not trust Mike Bloomberg, or even like him. But they like his money, which in Hawkfish’s case has bought a load of digital talent and valuable data stores. And the Democratic ticket needs all the help it can get in the digital battle against Donald Trump.
Kevin Sheekey is Bloomberg’s political whisperer. He long agitated for his boss to take a major role in national politics. In 2008, when Sheekey served as deputy mayor for government affairs in the mayor’s office, a New York magazine article was devoted to Sheekey’s (ultimately futile) efforts to ignite a Bloomberg presidential bid that year. As a student of political campaigns, Sheekey was fascinated by the digital dynamics of Obama’s two victories. He naturally began figuring how those techniques could advance the goals of his ambitious boss.
In 2013, when his mayoral term ended, Bloomberg turned to his pet causes—including gun control and climate change. Sheekey started introducing his old-tech-style boss to some minds on the cutting edge of data collection in Silicon Valley. A former Google product manager named Josh Mendelsohn helped arrange some of those meetings.
Then came the Trump victory, powered by data and a social-media advertising effort that went far beyond what Obama’s campaign had accomplished. Bloomberg added defeating Donald Trump and his GOP enablers to his causes, and put money behind it. During the 2018 congressional campaign, the former mayor sank over $100 million in a handful of races. “We did it post-primaries so we could see who was best positioned to win close elections,” says Sheekey. “Mike said, ‘I’m not in the business of wasting money—I want to put money into races that can be won with extra effort.’” Of the 24 candidates that got Bloomberg support, 21 of them won, with a dozen of them flipping districts from red to blue.
Despite the midterm victories, Sheekey saw that Democrats still lagged badly in gathering and exploiting the data that made the Trump campaign so effective. So Bloomberg ran with a new idea: invest big money in a tech political effort. “We’re going to have to bring a gun to a gunfight,” Sheekey recalls telling his colleagues. It was something that Bloomberg, with his money and tech savvy, was uniquely qualified to pull off. Lurking in the background was Bloomberg’s flirtation with his own presidential run.
One of the people Sheekey called on to help in the effort was Mendelsohn, who had moved to New York to set up a VC firm. Mendelsohn has long thrived in the nexus of tech and politics. His first coding job, at 13, came when he volunteered to build a website for Representative Debbie Wasserman (now Wasserman Schultz); and he worked at the Treasury Department when Sheryl Sandberg was Lawrence Summers’ chief of staff. When he left DC after a stint at the Department of Defense, Sandberg brought him into Google. In December 2018, he became an unpaid adviser to Bloomberg’s political tech startup.
The modern campaign that Parscale had pioneered was built on ad-tech and specifically the programmatic method of identifying people online who might be moved by a given pitch. Parscale’s Project Alamo made particularly good use of Facebook. In an internal memo that surfaced earlier this year, Facebook’s then-head of advertising technology, Andrew Bosworth, wrote, “But Parscale and Trump just did unbelievable work … They just used the tools we had to show the right creative to each person.” He called it “the high water mark of digital ad campaign.”
Sheekey and Mendelsohn knew they would have to build up a competitive expertise, and they sought people who had been involved in buying and operating ad-based data operations. One of the first calls was to Jeff Gleuck, who was at the time the CEO of Foursquare. Previously, Gleuck had been chief marketing officer of Travelocity, a business propelled by canny digital ad placement. In 2018, Gleuck participated as an adviser, and a year later he left Foursquare to become Hawkfish’s head of digital. Like other Silicon Valley notables joining the effort, he took a massive pay cut to work for the cause. “There was a lot to do to catch up with the Republican Party and its supporters, in terms of data orientation and digital savvy,” he says. “The wonderful thing about Hawkfish was bringing together under one roof political operatives, experienced people from social media and technology, data scientists, creatives from viral media and journalism.”
The other key hire was Gary Briggs, who had held marketing roles at eBay and Google, but even more relevant was the post he had just left, chief marketing officer of Facebook. He had seen firsthand how Parscale operated. “If you’d asked someone in Facebook’s sales or product teams who our best clients were, there's about five companies and Trump,” he says. “They created a learning system that is as good in digital marketing as is out there.” The Democrats were not in the same league, he says. Briggs wasn’t looking to join a company, but after a meeting with Mendelsohn and Sheekey, he said he’d take the job. That job hadn’t been formally offered, but he became chairman and one of the de facto leaders of the effort.
It’s an indication of the ad hoc nature of the enterprise that when the team needed a name, they looked no further than the giant aquarium in one of Bloomberg’s offices on New York’s Upper East Side. The first finned creature they pointed to was known as a hawkfish, and that was that. Had they looked it up, they would have learned that hawkfish are semi-aggressive, carnivorous bottom dwellers, not a bad description of the company that would emerge.
Hawkfish used the 2019 elections to test out its skills, doing work for Democrat Andy Beshear in the Kentucky gubernatorial contest and a few clients running for the Virginia statehouse. “We were getting our sea legs,” says Mitch Stewart, a longtime Democrat consultant who joined up with Hawkfish earlier that year, “to compete with what we saw on the right.” The results were sufficiently favorable, he says, to change Hawkfish’s mission from political startup to a single-candidate support organization.
The candidate was Mike Bloomberg, who reportedly was unhappy at the prospect of Bernie Sanders winning the nomination. All along skeptics were wondering if Hawkfish was just a stalking horse for its billionaire founder. In November 2019, their suspicions were confirmed. “I jumped on a plane to go to Alabama, to oversee the signature collection to get on the primary ballot there,” Stewart says. “We were off and running to support his presidential campaign.” Bloomberg began hiring every unaffiliated political blue-side operative his team could engage, promising that even if he lost, he would keep paying them to work for whoever got the Democratic nomination.
Bloomberg’s candidacy also put Hawkfish into overdrive. “A modest operation became something reasonably immodest,” Sheekey says. Hawkfish sought out literally hundreds of consultants, operatives, marketers, and quants. It was kind of a Woodstock of otherwise unemployed politicos and politically oriented techies, as well as some who had been considering joining up with other prospects.
“We started asking people we had met along our career and said, who's the best at x? And are they available?” says Briggs. Kevin Frankenfeld, whose résumé includes marketing stints at Twitter and Snap, remembers being summoned to a “sweaty conference room” in New York where Briggs asked if he could whip up digital strategy for a Bloomberg run—“by tomorrow afternoon,” recalls Frankenfeld, who now leads social media at Hawkfish.
Another key hire at that time was David Hammer, who had once helped create the DoubleClick bid manager for Google ad operations, the back-end algorithm that allows advertisers to autonomously make sophisticated auction-based bids to specific audiences. (The successor to that product, DV360, is now the leading driver of what is known as “programmatic” advertising.) He now heads Hawkfish product and technology. Like others I spoke to, the reason he jumped was simple: “Right now the most important work in the world is trying to defeat Donald Trump.”
Frankenfeld led what became Hawkfish’s most celebrated tactic—exploiting the reach of influencers on platforms like YouTube and Instagram, two previously unlikely destinations for Bloomberg memes. According to documents viewed by The Wall Street Journal, the campaign paid hundreds of “deputy digital organizers” $2,500 a month to blitz their social networks with pro-Bloomberg messages. The idea seemed to be making the then-77-year-old look less like a stuffy billionaire. Some of the posts were outright bizarre, like putting Bloomberg’s face on a meatball.
Now that Bloomberg was in the race, he started pumping money into Hawkfish. According to Sheekey, he put $50 million into data acquisition and another $50 million in software tools. This led to a buying spree of databases that gave Hawkfish a far deeper list of potential voters than anyone short of Brad Parscale. They included the expected commercial data stores from credit firms and the like, but Hawkfish also became one of the biggest customers of companies that built their own politically oriented data operations, like Civis Analytics (backed by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt) and Targetsmart.
Bloomberg initially made an impact in the polls, but after two debates and his dismal showing on the March 2 Super Tuesday primaries, he dropped out of the race. He had spent a billion dollars, and his only victory was American Samoa. Bloomberg now reconsidered the degree of his involvement. Seemingly retreating from his promise to keep paying everyone on the campaign to work for the Democratic cause until November, he laid off hundreds. (Some filed a class action suit charging Bloomberg for violating an agreement to keep them employed; Bloomberg has asked the court to dismiss the suit.)
The Hawkfish team urged him to keep their company going, saying it could make a difference in the presidential campaign, where Joe Biden, his favorite candidate (other than himself), was the likely nominee. They had already built up a huge database, augmented with survey data. They argued for a plan where Bloomberg would no longer need the ground operation and consultants, and could scale down to the quants, the engineers and the data teams. Ever the businessman, Bloomberg asked how much that would cost. The answer was around $35 million dollars more. Bloomberg gave the go-ahead, specifying that his investment would last only until November. If Hawkfish were to continue after that, it would be up to the team to figure that out for themselves.
Hawkfish’s Silicon Valley advisers were thrilled. “If Democrats want to beat Donald Trump, we ought to apply the best tech and data practices to politics,” says angel investor and Democratic donor Ron Conway, who has advised the effort. “Hawkfish is exactly what we need in 2020.”
Hawkfish was no longer a one-client company, working to elect its owner. It was a machine to help elect Joe Biden and other Democrats. But it needed clients. It couldn’t give its services away because of restrictions on gifts to political campaigns. But it could considerably undercharge for its services, by using a fee structure that does not account for the value of Bloomberg’s substantial investments in data and tools. Mendelsohn compares Hawkfish to a VC-funded startup, the difference being that the sole investor doesn’t expect his money back.
“We got this $35 million investment from Mike, and that’s our venture funding, right?” says Mendelsohn, who in a minor shake-up, took a formal role in the company in May. He assumed the role of CEO last month, while maintaining his role heading his VC firm. (The former leaders are still on board: Briggs remains chairman, and Glueck is now in charge of “soft-side” clients like organizations and PACs.) “Our goal is to now service as many customers as we possibly can. And the right way to do that is to run a hardly marginal business.” So while clients pay for the advertising Hawkfish buys on Google, Facebook, and other platforms, and some other costs, they get use of the most valuable assets—data and expertise—for almost nothing. It’s like getting a plane ride and only being charged for the drinks and snacks.
Hawkfish’s experienced political operative Mitch Stewart explains how Hawkfish hopes to make a difference in 2020. The key means of getting to the “fifty-plus-one” count of a winning election, he says, involves getting voters to register, convincing undecideds, and increasing turnout. All depend on contacting the right people with the appropriate message, which is the Hawkfish mission. “Because we have this better raw data set than our competitors do, we’re able to help campaigns make smarter decisions about who they target for voter registration, who they target for persuasion, and then who they target for turnout.”
The reason why Hawkfish’s data set is superior? Bloomberg’s money. “Getting some of these licensing subscriptions to different commercial services is expensive,” says Stewart. “For the most part, the data ecosystem on the left is a bit resource-dark, and so we’re just able to make some of those investments that others aren’t.”
While every campaign has access to voter files, it is the link to online behavior that matters. “There’s this incredible world of online behavioral signals out there, based on all the things you do on the internet, starting with the basics, like the ads you click on,” says Hammer. “There's a bunch of behavioral data that you can buy to enrich the voter file.” (Hawkfish says it does not merge those databases into thick dossiers on voters, but serves them anonymously.) Hammer explains that a key part of getting people who tend toward your candidate into the voting booth (or mailing a ballot) is using that behavior to increase commitment. The techniques that Parscale used in 2016 aren’t as effective with voters on the left. For instance, the Trump team was able to identify supporters by those who bought hats and T-shirts. Biden supporters are less likely to go for that. So Hawkfish notices what ads people watch and engage with. If someone watches a Biden ad until the end, that’s a likely supporter and a target for messages.
The survey guru at Hawkfish is Ellen Konar, who was instrumental in setting up Google’s user feedback processes. “You can buy information, but my part of the organization is in charge of getting better information about the who,” she says. “Right now, it’s about the voters who are either on the bubble or are conflicted.” As an example, she mentions evangelical Christians and people in the military. Both segments have supported Trump, she says, but Trump’s behavior is often in conflict with their values, leaving them open to being convinced by the right messages.
In 2016, when the Trump team identified people who were unlikely to vote for their candidate, it worked on poisoning the well of democracy, promoting content to those voters to sour them on the idea of voting. The Hawkfish people say they aren’t going there. “We have had great discussions about that, and there is agreement that we have to win with our principles intact,” says Konar.
Not that the Trump campaign is quaking in its boots. “I mean they can say whatever they want, right?” Parscale wrote in an email regarding Hawkfish’s claims that it is closing the data gap between Democrats and his operation. “Would love to hear how they did that. Lol.” (Parscale’s note came before he was displaced as campaign manager in light of Trump’s lagging poll numbers.)
Despite offering valuable services at rock-bottom cost, Hawkfish had a slow start in signing clients. “The timing probably works against Hawkfish, in that a lot of these firms were signed up in 2019,” says Mitch Stewart. “During that time, we were busy supporting Mike’s candidacy. And then when that primary ended, a lot of entities already had their vendor picked.”
The nadir came when the Biden campaign chose instead to create its own digital infrastructure using a group of different clients—none of them Hawkfish. Hawkfish had been very public in trying to get that business. A number of accounts, including a report in Axios, indicated that the failure to get the work was in part due to Hawkfish’s connection to Bloomberg’s failed campaign. There were also tensions with the progressive wing of the party, which rebelled at handing over critical data operations to a mogul who barely identified as a Democrat. Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez posted a tweet cautioning the Biden team not to hire Hawkfish, which she called “a shady firm w/ a failed track record.” Stefan Smith, Pete Buttigieg’s online engagement director, told the LA Times, “Democrats are rightly suspicious of former Republican billionaires parachuting into the Democratic process working as white knights.” Two experienced Democratic operatives not involved in the decision confirmed to WIRED that such tensions exist.
A CEO for a major tech-oriented firm who has informally advised Hawkfish thinks that the rejection shows just “how politicized it is,” he says of the decision. “Probably the concern is that a lot of people in the Democratic Party were very upset with Bloomberg. It just doesn't make any sense to me.”
The Biden campaign denied to WIRED that those considerations were a factor in its decision. The campaign also says it feels that its homegrown digital operations are competitive with those in Trumpworld. In a statement, Becca Siegel, the chief analytics officer for Biden for President, said, "Since 2016, Democrats have been building out a connected, collaborative, and powerful data infrastructure that will help us mobilize voters across the country and elect Democrats up and down the ballot in November to put us in a position of strength to take on Donald Trump."
Nonetheless, the Biden campaign is going to benefit from Hawkfish. In late June, Hawkfish signed a deal with the DNC. Even though the contract is modest, the DNC will get use of Hawkfish's extensive voter catalogs for its database, called Phoenix. This will be easy to do, says Mendelsohn, because of Hawkfish’s early decision to run its operations on Google’s cloud platform (political operations traditionally use Amazon Web Services). Since Phoenix also runs on Google, its data stores interact seamlessly with those of Hawkfish.
Mendelsohn says that Hawkfish sees itself as kind of an open-source operation, distributing goods to any Biden/Democrat campaign cause that inks a contract. Since it didn’t win contracts from what’s known as the “hard” side (the candidates themselves), it is concentrating on the “soft side” (issue-based organizations or political action committees). In recent weeks, Hawkfish has publicly signed some critical soft-side clients and boasts that it also is working for a number of undisclosed customers. Recently, word leaked that Hawkfish had a contract with American Bridge, a well-funded PAC that will use the company’s data to direct messages to Trump voters in the pivotal states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Hawkfish is also announcing a previously undisclosed deal with another Super Pac, Unite the Country, run by former Biden aide Mark Doyle, who said that Hawkfish had “profound reach and a tremendous digital infrastructure.” Among Unite the Country’s big donors are LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and Richard Blum, the investment banker married to Senator Dianne Feinstein.
Hawkfish is also identifying key areas of persuasion that might help Biden and Democrats. “One major initiative for 2020 is pulling out all the stops to support vote-by-mail,” says Hammer. “We have been building out all sorts of data efforts to understand attitudes around vote-by-mail, understand how those mindsets have shifted, and translate that into models onto the voter file so that we can really understand how to maximize vote by mail.”
And what if vote-by-mail ends up with an unresolved election that moves to the courts? Hawkfish is preparing for that, says Mendelsohn, anticipating that its data might be of use to compare voter intent with results that seem, well, improbable. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that anything can happen and it’s good to be prepared. And if Hawkfish is to survive as a company after this election, it will need to prove it can prepare Democrats long into the future.