Did Hipster Tech Really Save the Obama Campaign?

Obama field organizers, armed with the fruits of Big Data, could bring a presidential campaign to the front porch as never before. OFA’s aim was to use algorithms to enhance the human (and thus more persuasive) part of politics: face-to-face, friend-to-friend, or at least Facebook friend-to-Facebook friend.

The new analysts did something unheard of by profiling and targeting unlikely voters. That transformed registration from a passive activity — sitting at a folding table in a supermarket parking lot — into something active and much more efficient.

By 2011 the technology of the 2008 campaign was long obsolete. So Obama campaign manager Jim Messina set out for the West Coast, where Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google, and executives from Apple, Facebook, Zynga, Microsoft, DreamWorks, and Salesforce all told him he should not just view the campaign as a start-up but hire much of his digital crew from start-ups that were outside of politics. The idea was that everything the geeks did should be a “force multiplier” for Field, Communications, Finance, and other departments, not an end in itself.

The digital team assembled in Chicago was in fact three teams — Digital, Tech, and Analytics — with interrelated and often competitive functions. All were headed by soon-to-be-legendary characters within the campaign. Teddy Goff said he wanted the young recruits in Digital to be so good they could be hired afterward by Nike or Coca-Cola and “not be seen as hippy dippys.” Michael Slaby and Harper Reed hired geeky geniuses from top tech companies ranging from Google to craigslist. Analytics ended up with a motley crew of mostly under-thirty data scientists and financial analysts, plus a biophysicist, a former child prodigy, and three professional poker players.

From the start, there was trouble in digital paradise — a culture clash between the engineers from tech companies and the more politically seasoned product managers and data analysts.

Harper Reed’s code writers, though lacking in campaign experience, were often paid $100,000 a year, twice as much as some of their colleagues in other sections of the campaign. Reed said Tech could afford the higher salaries because it held down head count by hiring fewer people than rival departments. The pay gap was exacerbated by the Tech team’s habit of routinely leaving the office at the ungodly hour of 6:30 p.m., five, six, even seven hours before Digital, Analytics, and other sections went home. This schedule was explained by the fact that they were older (meaning a few were in their mid-thirties) and, unlike most Chicago staffers, often had families.

A little humility would have gone a long way toward helping Tech blend in, but it wasn’t forthcoming. “Instead of ‘Listen and learn,’ they [Tech people] came in with a ‘Burn the place down’ attitude — real arrogant,” said one senior campaign official. “It was, ‘Fuck the vendors — we’ll build everything in-house.’ ” But the vendors, firms like NGP VAN that specialized in voter contact, knew politics, and Reed’s department did not. Tech team members used their fluency in tech jargon to their advantage, but they were often illiterate in basic political language.

And they often took their mandate for “disruption” too far. But all of this would have been minor if the products Tech developed were working.

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