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Ruck.us Reboots As a Candidate Digital Toolkit That's a Bit Too Like Democracy.com

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, April 22 2014

In December, we reported on the demise of Ruck.us, which, in the words of its founder Nathan Daschle, had aimed to be "the world's first ever political-social network."

Back then, while announcing Ruck.us' failure, Daschle promised that he and his team were "going to pivot away from Ruck.us as a social network and toward Ruck.us as a digital toolkit for political candidates."

Now the new Ruck.us is here, in beta form, and indeed, that's what it is--a campaign-in-a-box platform for candidates who need to manage their web presence, complete with a custom URL, email lists, integration social media and, most critically, a simple way to raise money from supporters.

Essentially, if you are a political candidate, Ruck.us is pretty similar in function to Democracy.com, a less-than-a-year-old start-up that also gives anyone running for any office the ability to raise money online, email supporters, and tie their profile into their social media accounts, all tied under a custom URL, as a free service. (Our Miranda Neubauer wrote up their launch last fall.) A week ago, the Democracy.com celebrated the first million dollars raised by candidates using its tools.

But, that's not the only aspect of Ruck.us that echoes Democracy.com. The language on the site's "Contact Us" page is literally an exact copy of the one on Democracy.com, down to the 800 number listed. You read that correctly. I wouldn't have noticed this except for the fact that when I called the number on Ruck.us' page--800-387-0861--it took me to a Democracy.com help desk.

Democracy.com's contact page:

Ruck.us' contact page:

Clearly, Ruck.us isn't really ready for prime time; it's FAQ page is still "coming soon" and its Terms of Service are "Lorem ipsum dolor sit met…" But it's out in the world, soliciting signups and feedback from candidates. So this morning, I called Nathan Daschle--who while working on his start-up is also an executive vice president at Comcast Clear Channel for political strategy--to learn more about his plans for the new Ruck.us and how they had evolved.

"This is our second iteration," he told me. "The first iteration just didn't work out. I still firmly believe in the mission of what we were trying to do [building a general political social network], but smarter people will have to figure that out. We just couldn't figure it out. But in the process we sort of stumbled across a more concise market need: providing a super-basic set of digital tools for state and local candidates."

Noting that Ruck.us had also tried to appeal to candidates in its first incarnation, Daschle admitted that they hadn't been able to offer them much of a value proposition without a large base of more general users. In the meantime, he had this epiphany: "There are a million state and local candidates who run for office every two years. No one knows exactly what technology they use." So his team did some research. In Annapolis, he said, the majority of people running for alderman didn't have their own websites. At most they were using Wordpress sites.

Given that local candidates for office may spend at best $15,000-$25,000 on their races, which isn't enough for custom web services, Daschle says the new Ruck.us is aiming to be like a "Wix for politics," that would enable someone to build their own site, for free, in a few minutes or less.

"I picture my Dad if he were running for city council," Daschle said, referencing former Senator Tom Daschle. "Could he use Ruck.us? I think the answer is yes."

Asked why Ruck.us' 800 number is actually to Democracy.com's help desk, Daschle tried to make a joke of it. "Actually, it's part of a secret conspiracy with Democracy.com," he said at first. Then he turned more more serious. "The reason we did a very very soft launch is that we still have things to work out." But then he joked again: "If they're offering help maybe they can offer help to our customers too."

When I suggested that maybe the Ruck.us development team had been looking at Democracy.com's site, Daschle bristled.

"We've been designing this thing from before Democracy.com existed," he asserted. "Of course we're not copying their site. I have no clue why we have their 800 number up there. I would guess that someone made a mistake." Then he added, "Like a lot of startups we're on a shoe string budget. You are the first person to raise this."

Later in the day, he emailed me this explanation, "I checked with my team and no one remembers anything specific about this. Our best guess is that when our designers drafted a contact page, they looked to see how others had done it and checked out d.com. No one caught the error when it went to the developers. It's a pretty harmless mistake, and to be honest, if it's the worst one we make, we'll be in a good shape."

As of 5:30pm ET, the Ruck.us "contact us" page is still listing Democracy.com's help number.

Asked for comment, Talmage Cooley, the founder and CEO of Democracy.com said, "We at Democracy.com are flattered. While the Ruck.us team tries to 'remember' who asked their designer to copy our site, we are happy to continue answering their customer service calls. It's a big democracy and Democracy.com is all about empowering every voice, including those trying to reach our competitors for help with their site."

The truth is, building an easy-to-use tool for all levels of political candidates to use to establish their web presence, connect with supporters and raise money is hardly a unique idea. The Ruck.us team can't really be faulted for looking at what competitors in the space are offering. But studying your competitors is one thing; scraping their code--even a little bit of it--that gets a yellow flag.

Correction: This post has been updated to reflect the fact that Nathan Daschle works for Clear Channel, not Comcast. I regret the error.