How The Cool Kid Of Progressive Politics Gambled It All Away
For a certain segment of the chronically online left, it was the equivalent of a blood bath. Just a few days before Christmas, the Slack channels started to disappear. Then, one by one, users were booted off of the Slack entirely. Like at many modern offices, workers at Data For Progress — a left-leaning polling firm and think tank — used Slack’s chat software for internal communication. But the Data For Progress Slack was notorious in progressive circles for having multiple public channels that included expansive membership outside of the company. And now the channels were being shuttered and non-employees were being evicted.
Sean McElwee, the firm’s charismatic and occasionally controversial 30-year-old founder, had a habit of inviting a coterie of characters from outside the company into the Slack, including pollsters, political scientists and journalists. If McElwee thought you were interesting, you had a good shot at an invitation, particularly when Data for Progress was little more than, as the internal lore goes, “three guys on an email chain.” Though private channels remained closed to non-staffers, Data For Progress’s public Slack channels became a beloved water cooler for thinkfluencers on the progressive left.
“DFP, at one point in time, was like a genuine, awesome intellectual hub that produced a lot of really cool research and scholarship and friendship,” said one former member of the public Slack who wished to remain anonymous. “The Slack was a place for the progressive data community to come together, chat and network.”
And then one day, it was unceremoniously dismantled. By this point, word had gotten out that McElwee was in the process of being ousted by senior staff after a series of post-midterm scandals came to a head. There was the public reckoning over McElwee’s fondness for betting on issues and elections that Data For Progress polled on. There was his consulting work for Sam Bankman-Fried — the founder of recently bankrupt cryptocurrency exchange FTX, who has since been indicted on fraud charges. And there were accusations of a straw-donor scheme — where someone pays another person to make donations on their behalf to avoid limits on campaign donations. (McElwee declined to be interviewed for this story.) After a tumultuous few weeks for the firm’s public image, McElwee was out, the new guard was in, and they were cleaning house.
“We’re a mature organization,” said Danielle Deiseroth, Data For Progress’s interim executive director. “We wanted to put that chapter behind us. We still have many great friends of DFP who have been around since the beginning and are still very supportive of us, but our Slack should be for our work.”
The death of the public Slack marked the beginning of a new chapter for Data For Progress. By the end of the year, new leadership had reestablished the nonprofit as independent and had instituted an advisory board. It’s the dawn of a new era … for a 5-year-old policy shop. And now the young staffers left running the show are tasked with determining what’s next.
At its inception in 2018, Data For Progress really was three guys on an email chain. Through Twitter, McElwee had connected with Colin McAuliffe, a data scientist, and Jon Green, then a political science Ph.D. student. McElwee had already garnered attention for hot takes on progressive policy that challenged the status quo — in particular, he helped popularize the notion of abolishing the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — as well as his weekly, wonky happy hours that attracted the likes of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“We were blogging, effectively,” Green said of Data For Progress’s early days, noting that McAuliffe was skilled at statistical analysis, allowing them to ask new questions of public data. “We were just bringing a little bit of data to the ongoing discussion about the relationship between ideals and pragmatism in the Democratic extended party network.”
Originally, the trio created Data For Progress as an LLC, but according to Green it quickly became clear that establishing the firm as a non-profit made more sense since they weren’t, well, turning a profit. It pivoted and became a project of the Tides Advocacy Fund, a nonprofit social welfare organization that funds efforts to advance progressive ideas. Rather than continuing to rely on free, existing polling and public opinion data, Data For Progress started soliciting new polling from YouGov Blue — an arm of YouGov specializing in polling for Democrats and progressives — before eventually doing its own polling in-house. By 2020, two years after its inception, the firm had grown from three bloggers to a bona fide pollster with roughly a dozen staff creating policy reports shared by the likes of Sen. Elizabeth Warren and getting tapped to consult with then-candidate Joe Biden.
As Data For Progress’s influence and legitimacy grew, so did McElwee’s online persona. Around the 2020 election, McElwee openly tweeted about betting on PredictIt — a prediction market, kind of like a cross between a stock market and a sports betting site, where users can bet on political outcomes, including which candidate will win a primary race or when a potential candidate might file to run for president. Considering that Data For Progress was conducting polling that might influence such markets, one could argue this was a conflict of interest. It violates FiveThirtyEight’s official policy for including pollsters in our database and forecasts, and as such, any future polls conducted by McElwee — but not Data For Progress — have been banned by FiveThirtyEight. At the time, McElwee’s bets went largely unnoticed by the public, but at least among members of the public Data For Progress Slack, it was an open secret.
“I remember people talking about it. He was tweeting about it. He wasn’t really shy about it,” said the former Slack member.
It wasn’t until fall of 2022 that public scrutiny of McElwee began to escalate. Data For Progress had received tens of thousands of dollars to conduct polls for Protect Our Future, a PAC largely funded by Bankman-Fried that supported candidates who were crypto-friendly, and McElwee himself had been advising Bankman-Fried, something that was causing internal unease even before FTX disintegrated and Bankman-Fried faced fraud charges. Then in November, an interview with an anonymous Twitter user stoked renewed interest in McElwee’s predilection for betting. In an interview with The Tartan, Carnegie Mellon University’s student-run newspaper, anonymous election forecaster and commentator @cityafreaks alluded to McElwee’s betting on PredictIt. The interview was later pulled down when it became clear much of the user’s commentary, including how much McElwee may have lost on PredictIt, was hyperbolic supposition, rather than fact. But McElwee’s betting on PredictIt was so well-documented — on his Twitter feed (though some tweets have now been deleted) and in a podcast interview — that it didn’t take long for Polling Nerd Twitter to point out the potential conflicts of his behavior.
The backlash was hurting Data For Progress’s reputation, and senior leadership at the firm began to strategize around getting McElwee out. At the same time, they began an internal review to ensure the founder hadn’t influenced any of the firm’s polling in order to, say, increase his earnings on a particular bet. Deiseroth said a broader internal investigation is ongoing, though she would not get into its specifics. But according to Johannes Fischer, Data For Progress’s director of engineering and analytics, that initial check showed McElwee didn’t have any noticeable pattern of influence on the polls, which were not controlled by any single individual at the firm.
“The reason I’m not concerned about the accuracy of our numbers is, [firstly], I was involved and saw them the whole time, and, secondly, Sean just frankly doesn’t know how to do it,” Fischer said. “There was never a point where Sean was able to field or weight a survey. Of course, he was the executive director of the organization, but he’s not a practicing pollster.”
By mid-December, McElwee was out and the organization became independent from Tides, asking all staff to sign new employment agreements that strictly prohibited betting on topics Data For Progress works on. They also prohibited outside consultation work without prior authorization from the firm — so deals like McElwee’s work with Bankman-Fried would have to be greenlit by leadership. The new nonprofit structure also introduced an advisory board of industry experts to help shape the young pollster’s next chapter and who will have final say over its long-term strategic decisions, according to Deiseroth.
The future, however, still looks a bit foggy. Like most pollsters, Data For Progress is reviewing its polls from the 2022 cycle and seeing where it can make improvements. Deiseroth said the firm will prioritize rebuilding trust going forward, but that leadership is still in early conversations over what Data For Progress’s long-term goals should be and how to reach them.
But whatever is next, it’s sure to include the core tenet of what inspired Data For Progress to begin with: using polling to support progressive policy ideas. Deiseroth noted that amid all its turmoil, Data for Progress’s team of about two dozen staffers still put out a poll almost every day in December and January.
“We’re eager and excited to keep our work up and are looking forward to how we shape our next chapter,” Deiseroth said. “We’re still here.”
Additional reporting by Mary Radcliffe.
CORRECTION (Feb. 23, 1:32 p.m.): An earlier version of this story stated that Data For Progress received donations from Protect Our Future. The funds were payments for polling Data For Progress conducted for Protect Our Future, not donations.