Trailer Park to Harvard Put Bird on Course to Change U.S.
Jeremy Bird says he wants to change the world one data point at a time.
Fresh from his post as national field director for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, Bird and his partners have started a consulting firm, 270 Strategies, to leverage what they learned during six years of targeting and turning out voters, and apply it to a for-profit model.
They plan to blend the door-knocking tenacity of a Chicago precinct captain with the sophisticated identification and turnout tools that made Obama’s campaign the envy of the political world. Their approach often meant having more than 500 data points on a single voter, from his reading habits to his opinions on the economy.
Bird’s success and his ascending profile highlight how big data analytics have transformed politics in ways that also may apply to commercial ventures. The firm now is being courted by campaigns and companies that want to spread what the Obama organization sees as its secret sauce for success.
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“We want to work with people who are doing big things,” Bird, 34, said as he munched on a chicken salad at a restaurant in downtown Chicago. “That would be campaigns in states, national stuff, causes, things like health care and mayors and guns as well as corporate work where we can provide in all those scenarios. What we are basically talking about is engaging people.”
Even in “a crowded space with all kinds of service companies competing to do the same,” there is a market for 270 Strategies, said George Zachary, a general partner at Charles River Ventures Inc., in Menlo Park, California. “I have to think with their experience at doing this at massive scale, they are a front-runner.”
Ari Zoldan, chief executive officer of New York-based Quantum Networks LLC, said “in terms of possible market opportunities, 270’s prospects are extremely promising.”
“It’s not social media for the sake of social media,” he said. “But give me social media with really good strategy and execution behind it, there’s the power.”
His parents, wed at the ages of 16 and 17, had only high school educations and struggled financially. Bird, their second son, proved to be a gifted student, destined for college if he could find a way to pay for it.
The answer came from Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana, a 900-student, all-male liberal arts school that provided Bird with enough aid.
He majored in religion and ran cross country. He also got his first taste of grass-roots organizing and political awareness.
A column he wrote for his college newspaper, “The Bachelor,” urged the school to form a lacrosse team. The response from students was so great that Bird went on to persuade the Student Council to donate $8,000 and later the university president to contribute another $5,000. The team was formed.
More transforming was his semester abroad in Israel where he witnessed activism, particularly among the young.
“That’s where I learned about politics,” Bird said. “Ehud Barak was running against Benjamin Netanyahu, everybody was talking about it. It made me realize I didn’t pay any attention to politics in the United States the way I should.”
His faculty adviser told him his grades were good enough to get into any graduate school, so Bird applied to only one, Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was accepted. Another attraction for him: being able to take classes at the John F. Kennedy School of Government.
At the Kennedy School, he enrolled in Marshall Ganz’s course “Organizing: People, Power, and Change.”
“He seemed very earnest and, how can I say, looking for something real as opposed to theoretical, flaky sort of thing,” Ganz, a senior lecturer in public policy, said in an interview.
Bird found it in his project working with a youth organization to get additional funding for a school. It was then, he said, he realized his passion was more political than theological.
“I am religious, not profoundly,” Bird said. “It definitely shapes the way I see the world. My wife is Catholic and I find myself very drawn to Catholic social teaching, the new Testament and my politics are really shaped by it.”
Ganz said that his former student’s “calling is about engaging people in acting together in ways that they can alter their own life circumstances and that of the world around them. That’s always been important to Jeremy, trying to sort through ‘how does my calling translate into a career’.”
The next year, Bird became a teaching assistant for Ganz, who at the time was also advising organizers for Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign in New Hampshire, one of the first campaigns to try to merge grass roots and technology.
He sent Bird to help and to get his initial exposure to using organizational techniques -- similar to the ones Ganz used with farm workers in California in the 1980s -- to affect electoral politics.
After the 2004 campaign, Bird worked on the Wake-Up Wal- Mart campaign founded by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, an effort that criticized the business practices of Bentonville, Arkansas-based Wal-Mart (WMT) Stores Inc.
A few years later, intrigued by the candidacy of a U.S. senator whose own career started as a community organizer, Bird signed on to work for Obama.
Bird was assigned to be Obama’s field director in South Carolina, a place where he could use both his religious and political training, talking about Obama and faith to black church leaders while asking them to use organizing techniques to turn out the vote. Obama’s victory in the Democratic primary over Hillary Clinton in the Palmetto State was considered critical to winning the nomination.
Still, the 2008 campaign’s efforts to fuse organizing and technology were “like a forced marriage,” Ganz said.
So Bird and others continued to spend the next four years perfecting that fusion, and he said that while much of the focus is on the technology, the effort would have failed without the human touch of organizing.
“We were old school and new school together and a lot of people just look at the new school and say oh, you guys had all this technology, all this digital, but the organizational tactics of being in people’s communities was just as important,” he said.
In the 2012 campaign, they identified Virginia as one of the prime battleground states. Obama had won there in 2008, the first Democrat to do so since 1964. What Bird’s team did in Virginia serves as an example of how Obama won eight of the nine battleground states to ensure a second term.
In March of 2011, campaign leaders put together a budget, looked at current demographics, 2008 results and recent polling, then they projected what they would need to do to win the state.
The goal was to expand the statewide electorate by 150,000 new voter registrations, turn out at least 70 percent of that number and win a “significant” majority of them, Bird said.
Consumer research helped them identify the unregistered voting-eligible population in Virginia, they refined that by also focusing on blacks, Latinos and young voters, and how many of them had recently moved into the state.
They presumed that 2008 vote was the “high-water mark” for Obama in Virginia and that they “were going to have to manufacture more and grind it out,” he said.
Then they built a program to make it happen, including organizers armed with a narrative that would be used to help register and turn out voters. A voter-registration director on the ground created events and used social media to convert those gatherings into political opportunities.
Their goal was to get 150,000 new registrants, which was adapted based on events in the campaign. For example, after Obama’s tepid performance in the first debate against Republican Mitt Romney, Bird said the number of people they needed to persuade went up.
Merging online with real-life activities was critical, Bird said. They looked not only at voters who said they were undecided; they also probed to discern which voters were most movable and focused on them.
“It helped us better rank in order who we were going to talk to,” Bird said.
They also had “Airwolf,” a tool named after the 1980s TV series about a high-tech military helicopter. If a voter cared about bringing home troops from Afghanistan, and also worried about the economy, the campaign sent that voter the name of an Obama supporter she would know and provided more information to try to move her to the president. It was auto-generated and coded, and came from campaign headquarters even though, to the recipient, it looked like it came from their peer. If necessary, they would send that person to the voter to make a face-to-face appeal.
Now, Bird and his other partners, want to apply those techniques to other settings.
So far, they are working for Mayors Against Illegal Guns, Teach for America and ‘Ro for Congress,’ Democrat Rohit Khanna’s House campaign in California’s 17th District, which includes much of Silicon Valley, and Battleground Texas, a drive to turn Texas into a two-party competitive state. They also have corporate clients that they declined to disclose.
“We particularly have been working with some folks in the tech startup world who are looking to engage their users or consumers or the community they are trying to work with,” said Bird. “How can you do targeting, mixed with strong social media, mixed with old-fashioned organizing, to connect with people.”
The tracking tools provide metrics that make success easier to measure.
“Some people want a short cut, do this next month” Bird said. “We won Florida (NSULFL) by 60,000 votes; we had organizers there for six years. It wasn’t easy.”
No amount of technology alone, can deliver a win, he said.
“If you don’t have the right candidate, all of the other stuff is for naught. If you don’t have the right message and don’t have a good approach to telling that narrative, you are not helping people as much as you could.”
Ganz said his former student also will have to confront the quandary of working for a profit rather than merely a political victory.
“That’s where the tension is,” Ganz said, referring to the conflict between fighting for a cause and the ability to pay for it. “It places you with some really difficult choices. What are you going to do, and for who? And you can’t dodge it. And the incentives are so much against the calling.”
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