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How the Obama 2012 campaign harnessed tech to win votes

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Last night, at the Royal Automobile Club on London’s Pall Mall, Zeitgeist was fortunate enough to hear Harper Reed, the Chief Technology Officer of the Obama 2012 US presidential campaign speak candidly about how he helped get out the vote and keep the Democrats in the White House. Harper is ex-Threadless, the famous T-shirt company that lets users contribute their own designs, with the most popular becoming actual products sold the world over. It’s a democratic philosophy, one that understandably caught the attention of the campaign committee. It is also the kind of thinking that cities like New York and Chicago are starting to employ; actively gathering, analysing and distributing data to inform policy implications and help citizens. What follows is a brief summary of his thoughts and points that Zeitgeist found interesting.

Harper began the talk with the fundamentals, discussing how, when he arrived, the campaign seemingly already had much of the data gathering resources needed to achieve what he wanted. The trouble was it as all siloed. Putting all the data together was a major step in the right direction, toward cohesive data analysis. He elaborated, saying they went from having fifteen different numbers for doors that needed to be knocked on, to one. On hiring the right people for the task at hand, Harper was explicit in noting that they had hired tech people and taught them about politics, rather than the other way around. He riffed on the state of journalism, saying it was similarly important when hiring journalists that know about tech.

One of the more interesting insights Harper talked about involved the target demographics. Those most likely to vote are male or female 18-28, and women perhaps in her 50s. The younger group is adept and comfortable with all digital platforms, but still uses paper a fair amount. Paper, by contrast, is an essential medium for that middle-aged female voter. So the insight was about making paper use more efficient, given these groups’ use of it. Understandably this was a hard decision for a group of very tech-minded people to arrive at, but the acknowledgement showed they were willing to park their own pre-conceptions on how things ought to be done.

Like many startups, they were constantly trying to fail in order to create redundancies. This involved hosting hackathons where code was obsessively broken and then reconstructed, “ensuring things would break in ways we understood”, as Harper put it. They had the same approach with the content they published, aggressively testing every piece to make sure it was relevant and engaging for the intended audiences. What they failed to foresee was the Internet activist group Anonymous launching a DDOS attack the day before the election to coincide with Guy Fawkes day, which helped trigger a meltdown over at Amazon’s cloud servers, AWS. Harper made it sound like not too much trouble to switch the servers from the East Coast where they had been affected, to the West Coast, but the experience must have been a stressful one.

Lastly, he offered an opinion increasingly shared by many in the industry, which was a reluctance to talk of mobile device use as “second-screening”. Mobile devices, Harper pointed out quite rightly and obviously, are the first thing you look at when you wake up, the last thing you look at when you go to bed, and the thing you’re actually looking at when you’re supposed to be watching TV. Mobile first should always be the initial mindset.

In questions, Ruth Porter asked whether there were any pearls of wisdom that could be applied to those in UK politics and how they go about with their own strategy of getting out the vote. Harper conceded he had met that day with a party “whose name starts with ‘L'”, and believed that what was key was investment, commitment and belief from the very top in what social and data could do for the campaign. Without that, such efforts would amount to nothing. The lessons of the Obama 2012 campaign – and the pitfalls of Romney’s campaign – offer valuable lessons for political parties, but it seems any efforts at cherrypicking ideas or going in half-hearted would doom any prospect of leveraging what the Obama team were able to do.

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Any success in Harper’s tech strategy must be qualified against the sheer unpopularity of Obama’s rival candidate

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