Will St. Clair, wearing semi-rimless glasses, a plaid buttoned-down shirt, jeans and Adidas sneakers, can usually be found sitting on an exercise ball in the back of President Barack Obama’s campaign headquarters, his eyes trained on his computer screen.
The 23-year-old’s job is a mystery even to some senior staff in Chicago, yet they say they hope the skills he brings are a secret weapon: he’s a software engineer.
St. Clair is among more than a dozen developers hired by the campaign to leverage technology to wring out more votes in what Obama’s advisers say may be an election as close as the contested 2000 race between George W. Bush and Al Gore. From Seattle startups to International Business Machines Corp., they’ve left lucrative jobs to mine for swing voters. They've added a new term to the strategic lexicon: microlistening.
“Right now, if you want to call this the ‘data arms race,’ clearly Democrats are ahead,” said Alex Gage, CEO of TargetPoint Consulting, who worked on voter targeting for Bush’s successful re-election effort in 2004.
The Obama campaign is guarding the details of the operation like the political equivalent of nuclear secrets: “I’ll be happy to discuss what we’re doing after we do it,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s chief political strategist.
“The things we did in 2008 in many ways were prehistoric by contemporary standards,” Axelrod said at a Dec. 7 Bloomberg View lunch. “There’s a lot you can do in the way of more finely targeting voters so they’re getting information that’s useful to them.”
St. Clair and his team are creating tools to connect with people properly. For example, disenchanted voters are wooed, not hit up for money. They call it microlistening.
Other hints can be gleaned from an Obama campaign job posting that Gage, now consulting for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, took note of last spring recruiting “quantitative analysts.”
“The Obama for America analytics department analyzes the campaign’s data to guide election strategy and develop quantitative, actionable insights that drive our decision-making,” it says. “We are a multidisciplinary team of statisticians, mathematicians, software developers, general analysts and organizers -- all striving for a single goal: re-electing President Obama.”
The Obama team is taking technology development in-house.
“In 2008 we were very adept users of technology,” said Michael Slaby, the campaign’s chief integration and innovation officer. “We are much more ambitious about what we’re capable of building on our own.”
To be sure, no amount of technological sophistication may be enough for Obama to overcome stubbornly high unemployment, which his administration forecasts will be above 8 percent next year. Since World War II, no U.S. president has won re-election with a jobless rate above 6 percent, with the exception of Ronald Reagan, who faced 7.2 percent unemployment on Election Day in 1984.
Obama’s opponents also are seeking new ways to employ technology and build on the voter targeting effort in Bush’s 2004 re-election.
“Republicans realize they have to catch up, and I’m reasonably confident they will,” Gage said. “Will they surpass them? No.”
While it’s the first foray into campaigning for many of Obama’s quantitative analysts, the experience of trying to outmaneuver rivals like Google Inc. and Facebook Inc. may be ideal for the world of innovative political warfare.
“We have all these engineers here, who were part of start-ups and almost all of them competed against some giant behemoth,” said Harper Reed, the campaign’s chief technology officer, who recruited based on who he’d want for any start-up.
Reed was formerly CTO of Threadless, a Chicago-based T-shirt company whose business model relies on crowdsourcing to design and sell its products. The privately held company lets artists submit designs for a public vote. Reed said the company’s revenue increased 10-fold from when he started with Threadless in 2005 to when he left in 2009.
Unshaven, with black plastic-rimmed glasses and stretched earlobes adorned with metal hoop earrings, Reed, 33, is emblematic of a hipster style coexisting with the traditional. Staffers joke that facial hair is required in the dimly-lit back section of the office reserved for Slaby’s team.
Like artists who only paint with certain brushes, many of the engineers brought their own keyboards. Reed’s is black and has no labels -- he likes the noise it makes and the bounce to the fingers. Rather than chairs, many sit on large exercise balls. Or they don’t sit at all, electing instead to prop their computers on cardboard boxes and work standing up.
“There was a weird sense when you came in here that you were changing the campaign just by coexisting in the same spaces as everyone else,” said Anders Conbere, 28, an engineer who brought his own keyboard when he moved from Seattle.
Reed convinced Conbere to leave his job as a software developer for Estately Inc., a real estate index described on its website as a “Seattle-based team of geeks taking on the $50 billion real estate industry.” Earlier in his career, Conbere worked at aQuantive, an Internet advertising firm, when it was purchased by Microsoft Corp. for $6 billion in 2007 -- the biggest acquisition for the company until it bought Skype Technologies SA earlier this year.
To make every vote count in this difficult election climate, there’s little room for error, and the right staff is critical, according to Tim O’Reilly, founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media, a computer book publisher.
“They got lucky the first time,” O’Reilly, who advised the campaign earlier this year, said. “They had a bunch of idealistic volunteers who came out of nowhere to help them. They’re trying to do deliberately what happened by magic last time.”
O’Reilly coined the term microlistening when he met with campaign officials and heard what they were trying to do. They are parsing constituent concerns in fine detail. It’s easy to generate a lot of data and miss the point so, if done right, the work is more valuable than any poll, strategists say.
It comes down to data -- collecting voter information, synthesizing it and making use of it most effectively. The data comes from conversations on the ground and behavioral patterns on the website. Analysts may try to determine how to best target a voter who gives $5 to participate in a raffle to have dinner with the president versus $5 during a Republican debate.
Approach to Voters
If a supporter tells the campaign that a neighbor who voted for Obama in 2008, lost his job, is frustrated with the president’s handling of the economy and is now undecided, the most important distillation of that information may be that sending someone out to ask for a donation could cost Obama that vote.
“There are always going to be enough people out there to vote for Barack Obama,” said Clay Johnson, founder of Blue State Digital Media LLC, which managed Obama’s online campaign in 2008.
“The question is whether they can be persuaded, organized and activated enough to get to the polls and technology is going to be the thing that does that,” said Johnson, author of “The Information Diet.”
Beyond targeting, they’re finding ways to boost efficiency at all levels of the organization -- even the online store.
Last month, one group of engineers noticed that people trying to buy products like Obama T-shirts using mobile devices weren’t completing their purchases. Others on the team quickly realized that the site, a key fundraising tool, wasn’t user friendly for smart-phones. Within a week, another group of engineers changed the interface and sales went up that day.
“We never would have figured it out” during the last campaign, Slaby said. “We didn’t have enough skill in any of these three places to put data in a place that could be intelligently analyzed and acted on quickly.”
Slaby and Reed hope to keep expanding, recruiting engineers largely by word of mouth. It’s how Anders decided to move to Chicago only weeks after purchasing a home in Seattle.
Over coffee last spring, Reed told Slaby he’d join the campaign and immediately wanted to lock in their next hire.
Anders was 2,100 miles away, driving home from work with his wife when he received a 2-word text message from Reed:
“I just turned to my wife and said, ‘Let’s move to Chicago.’”