Big names back political social network

The political social network Vote iQ received a shot in the arm this week when Democratic strategist James Carville and Republican pollster Frank Luntz announced they would be joining the company's board of advisers. Set to launch June 3rd at the Personal Democracy Forum in New York, the nonpartisan startup has already attracted the support of prominent individuals including actor Richard Dreyfuss, historian Rick Perlstein and James Fallows of The Atlantic.

The site aims to become a "Facebook for political views" and will provide a single place where users can obtain all of their political information, according to Vice President Rick Shenkman, an associate professor of history at George Mason University. Users will set up a profile, input their zip code and be able to see a list of upcoming elections and candidates in their vicinity. The firm is starting with federal and state legislators but eventually plans to include local and county races as well.

Each candidate or elected official will have a profile maintained by Vote iQ linking to all relevant news coverage, as well as information on their campaign positions, donors and activities. Candidates will also have the option to purchase additional websites to help promote their candidacies, but doing so will not affect their Vote iQ profiles. 

"Each profile will be controlled by us, not the candidate," Shenkman said. "You can go here and get trustworthy information on who they are, key votes they have taken and campaign contributors. No one else has brought all this information together in one place."

The site also gives users the option of answering 12 questions regarding their political views. The answers are then placed into a sophisticated algorithm that will help match users with the candidates that most closely align with their views. Shenkman said no individual user's data are ever shared but the company does plan on using the aggregated data to create polls under the Vote iQ name.

The site is the brainchild of James Tisch, a former director of product management at consulting firm Robbins-Gioia. Shenkman said Tisch recruited him after reading his book, "Just How Stupid Are We?", a 300-page history of how America's knowledge-level of politics has declined over the past half-century. The company was formed about one year ago and currently boasts a staff of 23 supported by a group of angel investors that have contributed "millions" according to Shenkman.

Shenkman said the aggregation and curation of candidate information will be journalistic and strictly nonpartisan, a crucial distinction in his view. In doing so he draws on his experience as the founder of George Mason's History News Network, an online network frequented by historians of all ideological persuasions.

"The site only works if voters trust us. If anybody thinks we have a thumb on the scale for Republicans or Democrats it will collapse," Shenkman said. "That's why I suggested having an advisory board split right down the middle between Democrats and Republicans with a couple independents thrown in."

Perlstein said his respect for Shenkman and what he has done with History News Network led him to join the board of advisors. Advisors receive a stake in the company but no other compensation.

"It is the unglamourousness that attracts me," Perlstein said, predicting the site could have the biggest impact on smaller elections that "thrive on information." "The more obscure the election, the easier it is for the powers that be to control it. This holds up the possibility of turning races like that, lower-level municipal judges and conuty boards, into actual democratic elections."

Shenkman said the site will make money both through ads and by selling candidates and interest groups seeking a platform for reaching a politically-active audience. He said the site is "all about getting away from 30-second TV commercials" which he called "a hideous source of information."

"The millions of Americans interested in politics are the most poorly-served market in this country," Shenkman said. He views Vote iQ not as a replacement for disappearing local newspapers, but a compliment. "We hope it will be a vehicle for current newspapers to reach a larger audience."

"We're reaching for models to fill the vacuum created by the decimation of local news outlets. This is one possibility," Perlstein said. "Money and influence fill the vacuum where democratic information used to be."

Perlstein said the primary challenge to the site would be ensuring that good information isn't crowded out by marginal voices, but said he trusts Shenkman and his team to curate it responsibly.