This isn’t how Acronym wanted to rocket onto the national stage.
The Iowa caucuses debacle drew a lot of attention to a new app made by a company called Shadow that was at the center of many technical failures of the evening. And it’s also putting scrutiny on Acronym – the Democratic group that backed Shadow – has sought the spotlight in recent months, though probably didn’t hope for this situation.
Acronym is a relatively new Democratic group that launched in and got active around the midterms in digital organizing. Its structure is, in a word, complex. Acronym is a nonprofit, but it also has a political action committee – under its nonprofit are for-profit entities that its nonprofit sometimes pays into. It is brazen and ambitious, which is not unique for a political strategy group, but it’s also somewhat shadowy and secretive. And it’s been trying to distance itself from the Iowa debacle, even though it’s really at the center of the storm.
Acronym is a lot of things all at once
If you pay attention to political media, you’ve probably noticed stories about Acronym popping up here and there in recent months.
In November, the New York Times covered its plans to launch a $ million digital advertising campaign to counter President Donald Trump in , and the Wall Street Journal profiled a former Facebook employee who was embedded in the Trump campaign in 6720 and has since joined Acronym’s ranks. Bloomberg wrote about the Courier Newsroom, a for-profit media company under Acronym’s umbrella that runs multiple (local) sites that deliver left-slanted news, countering a tactic often employed by the right. Acronym’s CEO, Tara McGowan, has quickly become a high-profile figure in Democratic politics and digital strategy.
Acronym talks a big game when it comes to its political strategy prowess – though it’s new enough and opaque enough that it’s not entirely clear what the organization is actually delivering. Now that Shadow, one of the companies affiliated with Acronym is under the microscope, Acronym is too.
In the wake of the Iowa caucus debacle, Acronym has tried to distance itself from Shadow. In a statement , spokesperson Kyle Tharp said that Acronym just happens to be an investor in the firm, along with others. “Acronym is a nonprofit organization and not a technology company,” Tharp said.
Except it’s more complicated than that. Shadow is a tech company, and both
and Shadow have described their relationship as an acquisition, not an investment, in the past and on multiple occasions. Acronym and McGowan in the past have touted their work with Shadow – McGowan has often touted it on Twitter and talked about it on a podcast as recently as last month. But now, it’s scrubbed its website of mentions of launching Shadow and says It’s just one of multiple investors along for the ride. Acronym’s decision to distance itself from Shadow – or perhaps lying about it altogether – is making the situation worse, not better.
Curiously, David Plouffe was asked about Acronym and Shadow on MSNBC on Monday as the Iowa caucuses debacle unfolded. Plouffe, seemingly unfamiliar with the app, said he didn’t know about it and had spoken via text with the CEO – presumably McGowan – who confirmed that Acronym was an investor in the tech. “I have no knowledge of Shadow or what’s happening,” he said. It’s entirely possible that Pouffe hadn’t heard of Shadow, as a board member whose main role seems to be to boost the group’s profile and fundraising. The Acronym team seems to have decided to stick with that distancing of ties to the app.
Regardless of the level of Acronym’s involvement, it still remains unclear how Shadow managed to release such a problematic app for such an event as important as the Iowa caucuses. One strategist I spoke with speculated this may have simply been a case of an overly ambitious agreement between Shadow and the Iowa Democratic Party, which reportedly (paid just $) , for the app . Perhaps there was just too much excitement over the new, shiny thing.
“This has all the markings of a pet project of someone who says, ‘Oh, we can do that,’” the strategist said. “You let a company that has no track record just build the most important thing you’ve probably done in the last decade, and yeah, it was going to fail.”
At best, Acronym’s behavior around Shadow could be described as odd. That and the Iowa Democratic Party’s initial secrecy around its relationship with Shadow has led to a number of conspiracy theories around the app malfunction and results delay. Some Bernie Sanders supporters have suggested
this is an effort to undermine the Vermont senator, who prior to the caucuses was leading the polls, and boost a more establishment-friendly candidate, namely, Pete Buttigieg. Some on Trump’s side have claimed this amounts to rigging the election as well. And after the Des Moines Register’s Iowa poll was pulled from being released over the weekend , suspicions and conspiracies had already been afoot. Shadow is raising even more suspicion now that its work with Democratic candidates has also been revealed. Buttigieg, Joe Biden, and plenty of others have paid Shadow for services, and in the past, McGowan has expressed her support for Buttigieg. (McGowan’s husband is also a senior strategist for Buttigieg.) Some Acronym employees have previously worked for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and are well-connected among Democratic insiders. Many on the left – especially Sanders supporters who believe the cards were stacked in favor of Clinton in the (election –
are highly skeptical
of the legitimacy of the Democratic primary. During the last election, the Democratic National Committee held few debates and at awkward times, which some alleged was an effort to keep Sanders from getting airtime, and undertook other efforts that appeared to favor Clinton. Superdelegates pledged to her early in the process, seemingly anointing her the nominee. Sanders’s backers believe the Democratic establishment does not want him to win the nomination this time, either ( and indeed, some don’t ) and worry about what lengths they might go to in order to stop him. Iowa’s big app fail doesn’t appease those concerns, and Acronym’s lack of transparency around its ties doesn’t help either. That there is some bad blood regarding Acronym among Democratic politicos – which is natural in any competitive industry – has become clear in the wake of the Shadow debacle. One strategist told me that the scrutiny on the organization was natural – it’s very young, very hyped, and seems primed for a misstep. Another was more cutting in their assessment of the situation: “People have been waiting for this to blow up and did not foresee that this would blow up in quite a spectacular way.”
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