The Obama Campaign's Secret Weapon: Geeks
Day and night, Will St. Clair can be found sitting in the dark on an exercise ball in the back room of Barack Obama’s Chicago campaign headquarters, staring at a computer screen and typing intensely. Exactly what he’s doing in there for all those hours is a mystery even to some of the campaign’s senior staff. They hope the 23-year-old software engineer can use his skills to help them find ways to reassure wavering Obama supporters, and identify new ones.
St. Clair, who worked for a Chicago ad agency before joining the campaign, is one of more than a dozen developers and engineers toiling full time to reelect Obama. Their job is to write software that can make sense of the reams of voter data the campaign collects, searching for information that will enable a not-so-popular President running in a lousy economy to wring out every last vote he can. The idea is to take the now-standard practice of “microtargeting”—where a campaign repeatedly pesters supporters with phone calls, volunteer visits, and fundraising e-mails—one step further by tailoring their message to the concerns of individual voters. A woman who tells an Obama volunteer she’s standing with the President may receive an appeal for a donation a few days later. But the software will warn fundraisers to avoid hitting up that woman’s unemployed next-door neighbor for even the smallest amount of money, which could sour him on Obama for good. Instead, they’ll try to convince him that Obama is on his side. The campaign has come up with a friendly term for this kind of data manipulation: “microlistening.”
This is the cold, numbers-driven side of campaigning that candidates and their staffs don’t tend to talk about in public. Yet Obama’s advisers seem especially eager to showcase their data collection and mining operation, perhaps because they want to signal to potential donors—if not voters—that even if the President can’t inspire the same level of excitement the second time around, he can make up for his shortcomings by other means. “In 2008 we were very adept users of technology,” says Michael Slaby, the campaign’s chief integration and innovation officer. “This time we are much more ambitious about what we’re capable of building on our own.”
Obama’s advisers won’t divulge much more than that about how the operation works. “I’ll be happy to discuss what we’re doing after we do it,” says David Axelrod, Obama’s chief political strategist. Axelrod reveals only enough to taunt his Republican counterparts. “The things we did in 2008 in many ways were prehistoric by contemporary standards,” he says. “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.”
Obama’s GOP rivals have taken notice. “Right now, if you want to call this the ‘data arms race,’ clearly Democrats are ahead,” says Alex Gage, chief executive officer of TargetPoint Consulting, who worked on voter targeting for George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection. “Republicans realize they have to catch up, and I’m reasonably confident they will. Will they surpass them? No.”
Gage, who is working for Mitt Romney’s campaign, says he realized the Obama camp was up to something new last spring, when he saw a want ad on barackobama.com: “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 reads. “We are a multidisciplinary team of statisticians, mathematicians, software developers, general analysts, and organizers—all striving for a single goal: reelecting President Obama.”
The campaign’s call for coders and quants attracted guys like Harper Reed, who is now the campaign’s chief technology officer. “We have all these engineers here who were part of startups, and almost all of them competed against some giant behemoth,” Reed says. Before joining the campaign, he was chief technology officer of Threadless, a Chicago T-shirt company that lets customers vote on which designs it should produce.
Reed, 33, is every bit the political operative, if you can get past the scraggly beard and stretched earlobes. He and Slaby plan to keep expanding their team, recruiting largely by word of mouth. One of his first hires was Anders Conbere, a 28-year-old engineer from Seattle. “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,” he says. Last spring, Conbere was driving home from his job as a software developer for Estately, a property listing service that describes itself as a “team of geeks taking on the $50 billion real estate industry,” when he got a two-word text message from Reed: “Dude. Obama.”
“I just turned to my wife and said, ‘Let’s move to Chicago.’ ”