Going Viral – how did Swing Left do it?

On January 19th, 2017 Swing Left, an organization devoted solely to helping the Democrats win back the US House of Representatives in the mid-term elections was born.

It was started by MY brother, Ethan Todras-Whitehill and two of his friends who felt despondent after Trump won the presidency. Ethan had the idea to make a tool to help people find their nearest swing district, and when he told his friends about it, they all decided to make it happen. Swing Left initially defined swing districts as “places where the last election was won by 15% of the vote or less, where Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump, or where a high concentration of Swing Left volunteers make certain districts very winnable.”

They were hoping to get 20,000 people to sign up by March, but instead they had over 200,000 people signed up in less than a week. They had hit a nerve, and Swing Left went viral. You can listen to the kickoff call here, where Ethan explains why he *had* to start this organization. And here’s a video of Ethan talking about their first 100 days.

But they haven’t just gone viral once, they also did it again a few weeks ago just after the American Health Care Act (AHCA) was passed in the House. After the bill passed, Swing Left started a fund to help the eventual Democratic nominees that would run against the Republicans who voted for the new health care bill.

In 48 hours they raised over 1.3 million dollars.

I wanted to talk to Ethan about this phenomenon, and see if he had any insights about how they went viral – twice. This blog post will talk about the first time they went viral, and then I’ll follow it up with a second post about what happened after the AHCA vote. It’s a long interview, but well worth reading all the way through!


Tara Todras-Whitehill: So let’s talk about when you decided to launch Swing Left because timing is important. We talked about it over New Year’s, and I have to say I wasn’t sure the inauguration was the right time. Obviously I was wrong…

Ethan Todras-Whitehill: Yeah I didn’t know either. I think our first target was Thanksgiving, and we were thinking that the anger, despair and desire to do something was still really fresh in people’s minds. And they were going to be with each other, and be talking with family and friends, and then we didn’t make the Thanksgiving deadline, but we had it ready for the Christmas holidays, and that’s when I started to get frustrated. I wanted to launch it, and we started showing it to people then, but I remember being frustrated with our head of marketing and PR, Michelle. I was like, Michelle, let’s get this out there, and she said, no, you have to wait for the right moment. I remember being so frustrated by that but also trusting her. So in the lead up to the Inauguration, which was when we decided to launch, we went back and forth about doing it on the Inauguration, or the day before. And we finally settled on the day before the Inauguration. And weeks in advance of that we reached out to influential individuals in our networks and asked for people’s thoughts, feedbacks and comments. People thought it was pretty exciting, and if they expressed some positivity around it we asked if they would help us get attention for it when it actually launched. So the day of the launch we sent out emails to hundreds in our various networks.


TTW: Did you send out emails on mass or individually?

ETW: I think some people sent out mass emails to their folks. I sent out individual emails to thirty or forty different people. I could’ve done a mail merge but you get better attention to do it individually. And these were people I had conversations about it, or at least email exchanges. It was a lot of personalized emails. I spent all day sending emails. Other people did similarly. I see viral-ity as almost a stream, of sorts. And you gotta give something enough momentum to get into the stream, but then it’s going to go where it’s going to go on its own. The quality of the thing, the moment, the combination of what you’re offering and the moment in which you are offering it, is really what is going to determine success. So what you can do is 1) pick the moment and 2) and give it enough push to get it out there into the stream.


TTW: But how do you know what enough push is?

ETW: As much as you can, really. So the initial launch we had a smaller ability to push, right? But then the second time around, with the fund we put together in response to the AHCA vote, we had a much larger ability to push something out into the stream. We obviously had more of an impact that way. Certainly the size of the initial push does make a difference.


TTW: So in terms of the viral-ity – once it really started taking off – you could keep up with it and you weren’t overwhelmed. You must have enough presence the first time that you realized you needed people in marketing and PR to deal with this.

ETW: Well at our initial launch we were all folks with a background in media.


TTW: How many people initially?

ETW: Between 10-12.


TTW: I think a lot of times things that take off like this need a response — I think if you don’t know how to respond when something goes viral and get people involved, it goes flat quickly. But you were able to respond with your initial team and get other people involved fast. You weren’t like ‘holy shit’ and then shut down. Would you say were on the ball both immediately and the weeks that followed?

ETW: Well, immediately, our social media team knew how to respond. They had that knowledge and experience so that when stuff started flooding in they could respond to people quickly and in the right way, and the public understood there were real people behind this. So we started with this team of folks who were media savvy, but what we quickly attracted was some really experienced and talented organizers. Very quickly Swing Left became what it is today: a real melding of fresh new perspectives and old school organizing prowess. The scope of the initial viral moment reached and brought in people with the expertise we needed. It was pretty awesome.


TTW: And in terms of the viral nature of it, obviously 4 days 300,000 signups…

ETW: Not quite. Our initial goal was to get to 20,000 signups by March 1st. And we had 200,000  by the end of the first week and over 300,000 now.


TTW: That’s pretty amazing. Were you watching that happening in real time?

ETW: I was. I was looking at Google analytics, the number of people simultaneously on the site – that was my gauge. On the Thursday we launched it was 20, 30,40, 50 people on the site at one time. Oh ok, I thought, that’s not bad. And then something would happen–you couldn’t necessarily tell where it was coming from — and then you’d get a bump. So then you are at 100. And every time it would go up, it would start to settle down, but it would have a tail. And then there was one day when it was just going ridiculous. It was 2,500 people on the site simultaneously, and then I was looking at it and it jumped to 4,500. So what just happened?? I would later find out that the burst came from influential people on Facebook or Twitter – Sarah Silverman or Chelsea Handler, or someone like that. Then boom, 2,000 people would hit the site immediately. And as those people shared it with their followers it would have tail that would carry out. That’s kind of how it works. You get those bursts from those influential individuals and then it’s the organic part – just every person out there sharing with their 5,000 Twitter followers, 300 Facebook friends, whatever it is, that keeps it going.


TTW: Did you run any paid promotions on social?

ETW: Paid? Nothing. We haven’t done any paid. Oh, that’s not true. We did a week of paid testing, to try it out, but that was more recently.


TTW: So if you could say one piece of it, looking back, that gave you the push where so many people signed up at once? What would you say that is?

ETW: What really mattered is that Swing Left gave people something they needed exactly when they needed it. Influential individuals can help with that, but you can’t fake it. There is this term I’ve learned in organizing called the theory of change – basically, from a media perspective it’s a version of a pitch. You’re pitching volunteers on how they can get involved – donate, put in their time – their money or their energy where they can really make a difference. So we offered people this theory of change right when they needed it the most. They saw Donald Trump and felt, this is just a travesty. That’s how everyone else was reacting, and we said, yeah, we feel the same way and here’s something you can do. It seems far off, but you can make a difference and we will get you involved in something that can really make a difference. 2018, that’s our first chance to really do something. How do we do that? House of Representatives. How do we do that? Swing Districts. How does that work? Sign up and we will show you. It’s just putting out a really clear theory of change that was simple – a message everyone got and could understand and connect to. You can’t fake it. People can sniff that out. You have to offer them something that’s real. And that’s what we were doing. What we are doing.


TTW: Looking at your tweets and Facebook posts – they are very smart. The way that you guys look for hot topics and make them relatable to Swing Left. I am very impressed with that.

ETW: We don’t get into everything, but you have to do it on an everyday basis to remind people because the midterm elections are far away and we need to stay focused on that goal. The more work we do organizing in advance, the bigger impact we can have. Our aim is to help build a cultural moment around the midterms that fosters momentum and participation usually reserved for presidential elections. Because midterms are all about turnout. Close to 60% turnout for presidential elections but 35% turnout for midterms. Why? Because people aren’t paying that much attention. So the more energy and momentum and penetration into the popular consciousness that we can make for the midterms, the higher turnout we hopefully will have. Historically Democrats turnout for presidential and Republicans turn out for midterms. With the energy we are seeing, we are hoping to flip that script this time.


TTW: Your social is great. Tweets are interesting, some are funny and some are kinda sad, but they all make you think. Everything you are doing, it is keeping Swing Left in people’s heads. Sometimes when I look at places that try to keep their messaging up on an issue, they repeat themselves a lot, or they don’t get into the other similar issues – they are laser focused on the one thing and they don’t iterate.

ETW: It also helps that we have new stuff going on as an organization. We launched District Funds, which we’ll continue to promote tied to various topics and issues to raise money for candidates, and then we added more Swing Districts to our map and then most recently launched a series of house parties to support the special elections in Montana and Georgia.

Special election turnout rates are 15-20% kind of thing. And so those are all about energy and awareness and momentum. We did 230 phone banking parties resulting in 400,000 calls for Rob Quist in Montana. Again, this is something that people can do, a way they can make a difference. Our folks called over half the state of Montana in a week.

Our whole thing is to try and offer people things to do that not just feel good, but 1) actually has an impact and 2) is respectful of their time. Remember: we aren’t asking people to fly across the country like if they were working on Swing States. We are asking them to do work in Swing Districts close to them. For two-thirds of Swing Left volunteers, their closest Swing District is within approximately 50 miles or less, which is easy driving distance.


TTW: What about something that you wish you’d done differently?

ETW: Putting our names on the website from the beginning. The idea there was that we didn’t want to make it about us, it was about a movement, but given everything that had happened in the election, some people were understandably a little suspicious at the get-go not knowing who was behind it.


TTW: It was odd to get messages from people asking about my brother and the Russians. But I think you probably haven’t lost a lot long term because of that. Last question: did you think this would get as big as it did?

ETW: No, definitely not. I mean, when I came up with the idea for Swing Left, it was because I thought it could go viral. But not that it necessarily would. I was looking around for my closest Swing District right after the election and getting ready to post to Facebook, to say “this is my closest Swing District that I’m going to focus on.” And that gave me the idea of creating a tool to find my closest Swing District, so that other people wouldn’t have to do the work I just did. It was 2016, after all. When I called [Swing Left co-founder] Josh [Krafchin] and explained it to him, I asked “Don’t you think this could go viral? Don’t you think people would respond to this?” He was like, yeah, totally. That was the initial idea. And that’s really what going viral means – that it touches something.


TTW: And I remember when I reached out to my friends and everyone thought it was interesting. They all said, this is a good idea. So then I thought wow, this could go well. I had no idea how big it was going to get.

ETW: And no one will say “Oh yeah this will definitely go viral,” because nobody knows. But you can get a sense in the aggregate when everyone you speak to responds and says “Oh, this is a good idea,” and nobody expresses any real reservations. Another clue was when we reached out to our friends and asked if they wanted to join up, if they wanted to help build this thing. And when everyone responds that it’s a good idea, and some are even game to spend their time helping you with it, that’s another big hint that you’ve got something.

By Tara Todras-Whitehill

Tara worked as a staff photographer for the Associated Press for four years in the Middle East, covering the uprisings, revolutions and numerous elections in the Arab world. Her photography has been featured in the New York Times, National Geographic and Washington Post, among many others. She also works on personal projects focused on women's issues. Her passion is trying to portray strong women changing their lives and the world around them.


  1. Great! As the mother of both of you I feel very proud of the work that you are doing both at home at abroad..

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