There are few political operatives more in the zeitgeist than Sean McElwee, the media-savvy pollster whose firm, Data for Progress, has been at the center of a recent debate over how Democrats should run campaigns. Over the last few years, McElwee, a socialist turned pseudo-centrist, became a leading avatar of “popularism”—the belief that Democrats should focus on poll-tested issues that win elections, and avoid activist-approved messaging that turns off the median voter. He also became a Democratic celebrity in his own right: he famously hosted a regular happy hour in New York that was incessantly profiled throughout the Trump years as an exemplar of the rowdy “new left.” Along the way, McElwee created a successful political-media brand with a big online following and relationships with Democratic power brokers that elevated Data for Progress into the big leagues alongside mainstay polling firms like GSG at a remarkable speed.
But McElwee, I am told by multiple sources familiar with the situation, is now in advanced talks to resign from Data for Progress, the think tank he co-founded in 2018, in the latest fallout from the implosion of Sam Bankman-Fried, whom Sean advised. Ten days after Election Day, on Nov. 18, McElwee’s senior leadership confronted him on a conference call, and then in an email, that effectively served as a no-confidence vote. His reports conveyed their belief that his personal ties to S.B.F., along with his proclivity for betting on elections in which Data for Progress also polled, were putting the firm’s reputation at risk, according to two people familiar with the matter. McElwee and the group’s advisory board expect him to exit at the end of the year. “We are grateful for Sean’s vision and leadership in creating Data for Progress and establishing it as a preeminent progressive organization for change in this country,” the group’s advisory board told me.
In a statement late Monday evening, McElwee acknowledged that he would be parting ways with the group. “My vision for Data for Progress was to give progressives access to a tactic—polling—that would allow us to tell our story about where the public stands on our priorities, and D.F.P. has accomplished that goal,” he told me. “I am increasingly interested in other theories of change to make the world a better and more progressive place and will be leaving Data for Progress at the end of the year to pursue those new approaches to change.” McElwee is already talking with funders about a new advocacy group that will focus on the implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act.