During the 2012 campaign, Barack Obama’s reelection team had an underappreciated asset: Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt. He helped recruit talent, choose technology, and coach the campaign manager, Jim Messina, on the finer points of leading a large organization. “On election night he was in our boiler room in Chicago,” says David Plouffe, then a senior White House adviser. Schmidt had a particular affinity for a group of engineers and statisticians tucked away beneath a disco ball in a darkened corner of the office known as “the Cave.” The data analytics team, led by 30-year-old Dan Wagner, is credited with producing Obama’s surprising 5 million-vote margin of victory.
Schmidt thought enough of the team that when the campaign ended, he put up several million dollars to keep its core together as a new consulting firm, Civis Analytics, run by Wagner and staffed by two dozen of his former employees. They share ownership with Schmidt, its sole investor. The plan is to bring the same Big Data expertise that guided the most expensive presidential campaign in history to companies and nonprofits. “The model of innovation in technology are these very young teams that have a brand-new idea, like each other, and work incredibly hard,” says Schmidt. “Venture capitalists are competing all over for these people. When you find them, you figure out what they want to do and you back them.” Or, as Wagner puts it, “The Cave is incorporating.”