The Atlantic is a liberal magazine, but its articles are rarely obnoxiously liberal. They tend to be more informative than ideological, and here’s one that’s packed with info — the story of the Obama campaign’s tech nerds and how the campaign fit them into its structure for maximum effect. To be sure, it might be info mainly for campaign junkies and rabid Obama lovers. But since I’m reporting on the details of that campaign, and I think we need to understand what they did, I read it through. It turned out to be overly wordy for my taste, but surprisingly interesting. The cast of characters is interesting and what they accomplished is what we need to know.
It’s called When the Nerds Go Marching In and it’s subtitled “How a dream team of engineers from Facebook, Twitter, and Google built the software that drove Barack Obama’s reelection.” Here’s one conclusion from the article:
By the end, the campaign produced exactly what it should have: a hybrid of the desires of everyone on Obama’s team. They raised hundreds of millions of dollars online, made unprecedented progress in voter targeting, and built everything atop the most stable technical infrastructure of any presidential campaign. To go a step further, I’d even say that this clash of cultures was a good thing: The nerds shook up an ossifying Democratic tech structure and the politicos taught the nerds a thing or two about stress, small-p politics, and the significance of elections.
This is contrasted to what the Romney campaign did. I don’t need to go into that — we all know there were many problems and Romney is not going to run again, so Republicans should be concerned only with what they should do next time.
Perhaps the most important thing was that the campaign got the very top talent to do this work. Of course, this top talent was eager to work to re-elect Obama, and they took big pay cuts to do it. Is there top tech talent willing to work for a Republican candidate? I have no idea. If anyone reading this has the answer, please put it in a comment.
Another question: Would a Republican presidential candidate accept the offbeatness, not to mention downright weirdness, that these guys often have? Probably it wouldn’t faze Paul Ryan or Marco Rubio or Bobby Jindal . . . hey, we’ve got a whole list of new people who have the potential to understand tech stuff and be flexible about whether their techs are organization men. (Sorry, ladies, the highest level people in this field are men. The woman mentioned is a product manager, not an engineer. Funny how the campaign didn’t give a fig about gender equality when it came to winning.)
Here’s some of what this team did:
Of course, the tech didn’t exist for its own sake. It was meant to be used by the organizers in the field and the analysts in the lab. Let’s just run through some of the things that actually got accomplished by the tech, digital, and analytics teams beyond of Narwhal and Dashboard.
They created the most sophisticated email fundraising program ever. The digital team, under Rospars leadership, took their data-driven strategy to a new level. Any time you received an email from the Obama campaign, it had been tested on 18 smaller groups and the response rates had been gauged. The campaign thought all the letters had a good chance of succeeding, but the worst-performing letters did only 15 to 20 percent of what the best-performing emails could deliver. So, if a good performer could do $2.5 million, a poor performer might only net $500,000. The genius of the campaign was that it learned to stop sending poor performers.
Obama became the first presidential candidate to appear on Reddit, the massive popular social networking site. And yes, he really did type in his own answers with Goff at his side. One fascinating outcome of the AMA is that 30,000 Redditors registered to vote after President dropped in a link to the Obama voter registration page. Oh, and the campaign also officially has the most tweeted tweet and the most popular Facebook post. Not bad. I would also note that Laura Olin, a former strategist at Blue State Digital who moved to the Obama campaign, ran the best campaign Tumblr the world will probably ever see.
There’s more about what they did, and if you’re interested in this kind of thing I urge you to read it all. You can skip over the narrative parts that might make your eyes glaze over and get to the really stunning accomplishments.