Tara McGowan Will Get Inside Your Head

The Acronym founder has raised $100 million dollars—and more than a few eyebrows—with her plans to remake the business-as-usual culture of national politics.

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(Image credit: Dolly Faibyshev/Redux)

Tara McGowan, the 34-year-old founder and CEO of the progressive political org Acronym was running late to Politico’s Women Rule conference last December at the JW Marriott in Washington, D.C. Women Rule is a full day of back-to-back discourse among dazzling power women—Nancy Pelosi popped over for a 40-minute sit-down with Politico’s senior Washington correspondent and premier badass Anna Palmer shortly after announcing the Articles of Impeachment against President Donald Trump—and the atmosphere is downright heady, an estrogenic bath of passion and purpose. McGowan slipped into the full ballroom during a session in which three prominent opinion makers were talking about the difficulties of being female in a male-dominated universe. After a few minutes of polite panelist cross talk, McGowan leaned over to her seatmate and whispered, “When do we get to the part where we just take over?”

She could run that panel herself, having launched something of an insurgency in the world of big-money, big-D Democratic political fundraising, trying to modernize the methods campaigns use to influence “we the people.” As entrepreneurial missions go, hers was bracingly succinct: to make sure Donald Trump doesn’t get re-elected.

Acronym is a digital-first, data-driven nonprofit that was built, according to its “about” page, to advance “progressive causes through innovative communications.” Its affiliated super PAC Pacronym can’t give money directly to a campaign; its employees aren’t even allowed to talk to people working on a campaign. But super PACs can fund political communications, and they often outspend the campaigns themselves. Acronym is the majority investor in the local-news-site organization Courier Newsroom and the communications firm Lockwood Strategy. Courier, which supports local-news sites across multiple states, has drawn fire for intentionally serving up a "progressive" point of view to readers. One could say that reporting a positive take on a local congresswoman bringing health funding to her community is slanted, but it's not fake news.

That setup is complicated but in no way unlawful, yet it was severely criticized last February due to Acronym’s relationship with Shadow, maker of the App That Broke the Iowa Caucuses. Shadow had dissolved by July, but McGowan and Acronym hadn’t, and she continued her march toward November 3, strategically spending the $100 million she’s raised from investors and donors such as Steven Spielberg, Laurene Powell Jobs, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and George Soros’s Democracy PAC. Acronym deploys hundreds of targeted ads a day, as well as things like the cheeky politainment of Ilana Glazer talking voter registration with A-listers such as Jennifer Lawrence. It’s all in service of winning—not just the presidency for Joe Biden but also enthusiasm for down-ballot Democrats nationally.

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Tara McGowan’s star rose quickly in D.C. Democratic circles.

(Image credit: Courtesy of Acronym)

When Acronym launched in 2017, McGowan already had a pretty high profile as a digital savant inside the cradle/Beltway/swamp (you pick) of Washington, D.C. Her rise was speedy. After graduating from NYU with degrees in journalism and political science, McGowan started her career on the supply side of the communications business, working for a year as a broadcast associate for 60 Minutes before decamping to D.C. in 2010. Two years before the launch, she’d built the first-ever digital ad program for the Democrats’ largest super PAC, Priorities USA, which helped presidential candidate Hillary Clinton win the popular vote.

With the kinetic energy of a competitive gymnast and the speaking cadence of a bullet train, it seems unlikely that she could sit still through all 60 of those minutes, but she’s not easily distracted. She speaks in dissertations, raising and answering her own questions, then yours. Her bighearted Julia Roberts laugh is as disarming and genuine as that of the original, but make no mistake: Her big brain is always churning. Her reputation was burnished after she earned the trust of President Obama while working on his 2012 reelection campaign. And though she took a $10,000 pay cut from her $46K-a-year gig as press secretary to Senator Jack Reed (D) from her home state of Rhode Island, she ended up with something perhaps more valuable: Obama’s iconic “Yes We Can” slogan written on her arm by the president himself. (She had a tattoo artist permanently ink the distinct scrawl on her flesh.)

It’s pure speculation, but looking at that handwritten tattoo may have helped fortify her during her transition from Beltway famous—in 2018, Campaigns & Elections named her one of D.C.’s Rising Stars—to Internet famous on the Night the App Went Down. Singled out in the press as nearly wholly responsible for Shadow, maker of the faulty app (the company, in fact, had its own CEO), McGowan was described as a “secretive” and “divisive” leader of a dark-money operation who was somehow involved in a nefarious plot to disrupt the Iowa caucuses on behalf of Pete Buttigieg’s campaign.

As Mayor Pete put it in his excellent new book Trust (just out from Liveright Publishing): “Not only had we not caused the delays: ours was the campaign that the delays had most harmed.…A staff member on my campaign [senior strategist Michael Halle] was married to someone [McGowan] who ran a company that invested in the company that made the app—clear evidence!...Even a Democratic member of Congress retweeted a post that amplified the app conspiracy.…With surprisingly little effort, conspiracists had convinced 60 percent of the population that it was at least possible that something had gone maliciously wrong in Iowa.”

Perhaps most painful for McGowan was the number of off-the-record quotes (unironically accusing her of not being transparent) from “industry insiders”—people she knew.

It took the technology press to go beyond political considerations and point out the obvious: The app just wasn’t ready. It had a coding issue. Rookie mistake—you don’t launch a product until it’s been fully tested in real-world conditions. (See: Tesla boss throws a metal ball at supposedly bulletproof glass in front of millions. Glass breaks.) There were real-world consequences: Volunteers herding voters and counting votes were already overworked; the Democratic Party’s general competence was questioned. But the bug got fixed, the votes got counted, and no lives were lost. It was a problem that spawned a million conspiracies that had little to do with faulty tech and more, McGowan says, with people being mad at her for trying to change a system by working within it.

McGowan herself will tell you that the structure of Acronym is complex, in the same legal-but-sometimes-frustrating way of similar Republican groups. And it’s true that her data-driven, no-consultants evangelism has upset the ecosystem of the establishment, which pumps most of its money into traditional media. But there’s a reason seasoned investors (many of whom have been flexing their political muscle nearly as long as McGowan has been alive) have given her their trust—i.e., their money—and made hers one of the largest organizations of its kind on the Left and the only one run by a woman. She is a rapacious collector of talent and was clever enough to hire James Barnes, the architect of Trump’s very successful digital program at Facebook. Barnes had already changed parties when she hired him; since then, they’ve engineered data-driven party switching, at scale.

Watching her pitch what she’s selling to a very small group of very rich capitalists, you see the storyteller in her come out, as she deftly mixes emotion and logic into something quite persuasive. A digital native whose impatience with boomer naivete sometimes trickles out, McGowan has a throwback, almost WWII-era idealism about the sanctity of American democratic principles. Like many successful entrepreneurs of her generation, she possesses what The New Yorker’s Andrew Marantz has called a “techno-utopian” viewpoint, writing, “McGowan doesn’t seem reckless or sinister enough to intentionally rig an election. Rather, she seems…starry-eyed…prone to believing that a wide array of societal ills can be cured by another innovation, another round of investment, or another app.”

It’s an apt description, but it doesn’t quite capture the hard-knocks realpolitik animating her vision. She’s faced a lot considering she is the founder of a three-and-a-half-year-old business; it’s understandable that she’s grown more suspicious of the transactional nature of D.C. relationships. Without quantifiable data, it might be harder for her to see that relying on connections, especially in the political realm, could be less a mutual-exploitation contract and more the outgrowth of genuine trust built between people who are honorable even when no one is looking. Whatever happens this Tuesday, let’s hope that by 2024 the Beltway and the New Way will be more in sync.

McGowan talked with Marie Claire via Zoom from her home/temporary HQ in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, about building a progressive organization, achieving instant notoriety, and, well, just taking over.

Marie Claire: You studied journalism, not computer science. How did you build a $100 million digital-first, multiple-entity organization?
Tara McGowan: I’m a digital native. I didn’t have any formal training, but I was on the Internet from age 10. I was probably within the first 10,000 or 20,000 people on Facebook. In 2013, I got a call from a billionaire I’d never heard of in San Francisco named Tom Steyer. He flew me to San Francisco to start an organization making climate change a voting issue for young people. I was his second hire at NextGen Climate [now NextGen America]. I ran the first digital independent expenditure [i.e., PAC money] program, I think, in the country. Working for Tom is where I started building my reputation as a political strategist thinking differently about how we communicated online, especially in terms of [targeted] advertising.

MC: So, about that mission…
TM: From day one, it has been to build power and a digital infrastructure for the progressive movement. We didn’t have the digital strategies, tools, or the will to figure out a better way to get facts and progressive narratives into the news feeds, and psyches, of voters—especially those not paying attention to mainstream media. If we’re not countering disinformation on the same feeds, we’ve lost the information war, which is how Trump was able to be elected. We didn’t fully understand how information was reaching voters because we were using the 2012 playbook and Trump was playing [with] 2016’s.

MC: How do you beat President Trump in 2020?
TM: We were the first to hit Trump on his failed response to the pandemic in February. We got a ton of heat from Democrats who thought it was insensitive, but it turned out to be the most strategic, effective pivot we’ve made. We moved persuasion voters 3.4 percentage points—away from Trump—in those critical weeks we call the “persuasion window,” before the narrative was baked about his response to the pandemic. Within weeks, every other Democratic super PAC and campaign started to hit the president, after criticizing our strategy to do so.

MC: How can you prove something like that? Moving that many people?
TM: Our measurement team tests our ads on Facebook using surveys and other methods. [We’ve run] over 100 experiments this year and seen really strong effects.

MC: What’s the hardest part of getting famous for something you didn’t do?
TM: The most difficult part was becoming suddenly famous for the smallest piece of [our] portfolio. That’s not obfuscating the responsibility [of being] an investor in Shadow. I take responsibility for that. An error was made. But I didn’t run Shadow. I was a new founder and entrepreneur, and I’d bitten off more than I could chew, investing in multiple companies within a year of starting my nonprofit. I didn’t even understand the level of oversight required of an investor.

In trying to clarify that Acronym was an investor, not the same company, it looked like I was trying to distance myself from it. That wasn’t the intention, but it was a rookie mistake in terms of communications. We run one of the biggest advertising programs in the country and one of the biggest digital programs in a presidential election in history. That’s the thing that we want people to know about us.

MC: What’s so different about the way Acronym manages content?
TM: We brought all digital programs in-house. Digital programs were [typically] handled by outside consultants. For me to raise $100 million and not push that to agencies—they’re not going to like me. And I called out a culture where there’s a lack of accountability as to whether their programs or advertising works. Funders were like, “Well, why don’t you do your digital in-house?”

MC: How do you talk to your team—and yourself—when things blow up?
TM: During Iowa, we were in a real crisis. I had to make sure that my team was okay and that my donors knew all of the facts and heard from me directly. We didn’t have just a few; we were on our quickest upward trajectory at this point. And this was a personal crisis for me as much as an organizational and PR crisis. Every single one of my board members, including [former Obama campaign manager] David Plouffe, and all my major donors stuck by my side. The most consistent message I got was “Do not stop. They’re coming after you because you’re powerful and effective. They’re cowards and bullies. They know how smart you and your organization are, so just keep going.” That’s what I needed.

MC: You must have been a pretty tough kid.
TM: I think it’s because I grew up fighting with my dad. We’re both argumentative, and it made me a strong debater, confident to have the courage of my convictions. It’s pissed off every person in every restaurant my entire life because we get into screaming fights in public. I married somebody who doesn’t give a shit what anyone else thinks. I’m not that person, but he’s helped me enormously. About criticism, he’s like, “Why do you care? You’re smarter than these people. You know what you’re doing and what you stand for.” And that helps. You can mute the haters and the people who throw negative energy at you. But it’s important to not tune out people who disagree with you.

MC: Let’s talk about dark money in politics.
TM: I would prefer for the sake of our democracy that we didn’t have [it]. But, I believe very much in not unilaterally disarming. Moral-purity tests hurt our ability to build and sustain power on the Left. My precedent was Newman’s Own, a charitable organization that owned a company, and the Koch brothers, because they had a number of different [nonprofit] 501(c)(4)s. I could do advocacy and political work with nondisclosed donors. That’s what’s controversial. Nobody likes dark money. I get that. But it’s also enabled us to do everything that we’ve been able to.

MC: What drew you to this work?
TM: I lost my aunt on 9/11. I was 15. I paid such close attention to the news. I became obsessed with how the Bush administration leveraged disinformation to start a war that had nothing to do with 9/11 or Al Qaeda. That’s kind of the crux of life for me: trying to figure things out that might not make sense.

MC: How do you deal with the push-pull between politics and media?
TM: This is my issue with the great contradiction in my work, which is to spread information and facts on media. It’s so easy to take stories and headlines at face value and be influenced by the echo chambers you’re in. My training as a journalist is to always try to understand the other side, but you can’t give both sides the same amount of oxygen when one side is just lying to your face and gaslighting you. There’s no equivalence there. You can’t hold up lies next to facts and give equal weight to them in a story.

MC: How do you get out of your own echo chamber, whatever side you’re on?
TM: If you feel angry or scared or anxious when you see something on social media, there’s a really good chance that [the] piece of content was very much designed to make you feel that way. Consider that before you share it or you react to it publicly. We need to stop being passive consumers. Think about who the messengers are and [what] their incentives are for making you react the way you do.

It’s on all sides, right? Trump knows the triggers—the fake news, mispronouncing the names of people of color—and he knows exactly how to rile his base up. And frankly, on the Left, that exists too. The biggest threat to our democracy, honestly, is this polarization, where we can’t have civil discourse and debate.

This story has been updated.