Should the United States significantly cut defense spending or do we need to beef up our military to respond to threats around the world? Should we raise federal taxes on the wealthiest Americans or should all of us pay the same percentage of our income? How should the federal government respond to such issues as gay marriage, gun control, and abortion?
Vassar alum Ben Krakow ’08 is showing voters how their views on these and other issues line up with the Republicans and Democrats who are running for president. Krakow and two partners launched their startup company, VoterGuru, last fall, compiling voting records and public statements by the candidates on 14 separate issues and creating survey questions on those issues.
Anyone who logs on to www.voter.guru can complete the survey in about five minutes and find out which candidate holds the most similar views.
(Full disclosure: The author of this story took the survey and landed slightly to the left of Hilary Clinton and slightly to the right of Bernie Sanders, which seemed accurate enough. However, the author was somewhat surprised to learn his opinions on some issues matched up with those of Ben Carson.)
Krakow says he and his two partners, Ben Atkins and Catherine Mayell, spent more than 100 hours scouring news stories, political websites and campaign material from the candidates themselves to build VoterGuru’s database, and the information is being updated constantly as the candidates take occasional U-turns on their positions on some issues.
“We have developed an algorithm for analyzing information about each of the candidates,” he says, “but one of the challenges is gauging how consistent that information is over time.”
Krakow received seed money for VoterGuru from his fulltime employer, Horizon Media, a national media and advertising firm. It’s the first start-up to launch from Horizon’s “Dunes of Dreams Challenge,” which solicits ideas and business plans from its employees for new companies.
Krakow, who lives in Brooklyn and works in Horizon Media’s Manhattan office, says he expects VoterGuru to be able to duplicate what it’s doing for voters in the presidential race for those seeking information about future congressional and statewide elections. In addition, the technology the company has developed for matching voters with candidates has commercial applications, he says.
“We will be able to match people’s interests in environmental issues and other factors with the values held by certain brands,” Krakow explains. “We’ve created a model that we can use in the future to match users with political candidates or brands that share a particular person’s values.”
A media studies major at Vassar, Krakow did some freelance work for Horizon in 2010 before he was hired full-time as a media analyst, advising firms on how to juggle their advertising budgets. He hatched the idea for VoterGuru in 2013 and began some preliminary work with Atkins, a software engineer he had known since the two were in high school together in Boston, MA. “It was a happy coincidence that we were both working in New York and living in Brooklyn, and I approached him with this idea before Horizon came up with the startup initiative,” Krakow says.
Mayell, a designer who also works and lives in New York City, serves as VoterGuru’s creative director.
Krakow says he and his partners sent out a press release about the new company, and they’re enjoying the reaction they’re getting from friends, acquaintances, and strangers who take the VoterGuru survey.
“Most liberals who take the survey aren’t surprised by where they end up on the survey—they know about how far to the left they are,” he says. “Some conservatives were more surprised by the results because there were so many more candidates.”