By the end, Davidsen thought all the teams' relationships had improved, even before Obama's big win. She credited a weekly Wednesday drinking and hanging-out session that brought together all the various people working on the campaign's technology. By the very end, some front-end designers who were technically on the digital team had embedded with the tech squad to get work done faster. Tech might not have been fully integrated, but it was fully operational. High fives were in the air.
Slaby, with typical pragmatism, put it like this. "Our supporters don't give a shit about our org chart. They just want to have a meaningful experience. We promise them they can play a meaningful role in politics and they don't care about the departments in the campaign. So we have to do the work on our side to look integrated and have our shit together," he said. "That took some time. You have to develop new trust with people. It's just change management. It's not complicated; it's just hard."
What They Actually Built
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 e-mail fundraising program ever. The digital team, under Rospars leadership, took their data-driven strategy to a new level. Any time you received an e-mail 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 e-mails 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.
With Davidsen's help, the Analytics team built a tool they called The Optimizer, which allowed the campaign to buy eyeballs on television more cheaply. They took set-top box (that is to say, your cable or satellite box or DVR) data from Davidsen's old startup, Navik Networks, and correlated it with the campaign's own data. This occurred through a third party called Epsilon: the campaign sent its voter file and the television provider sent their billing file and boom, a list came back of people who had done certain things like, for example, watched the first presidential debate. Having that data allowed the campaign to buy ads that they knew would get in front of the most of their people at the last cost. They didn't have to buy the traditional stuff like the local news, either. Instead, they could run ads targeted to specific types of voters during reruns or off-peak hours.
According to CMAG/Kantar, the Obama's campaign's cost per ad was lower ($594) than the Romney campaign ($666) or any other major buyer in the campaign cycle. That difference may not sound impressive, but the Obama campaign itself aired more than 550,000 ads. And it wasn't just about cost, either. They could see that some households were only watching a couple hours of TV a day and might be willing to spend more to get in front of those harder-to-reach people.
The digital and tech teams worked to build Twitter and Facebook Blasters, a project that had the code name Täärgus for some reason. With Twitter, one of the company's former employees, Mark Trammell, helped build a tool that could specifically target individual users with direct messages. "We built an influence score for the people following the [Obama for America] accounts and then cross-referenced those for specific things we were trying to target, battleground states, that sort of stuff." Meanwhile, the teams also built an opt-in Facebook outreach program that sent people messages saying, essentially, "Your friend, Dave in Ohio, hasn't voted yet. Go tell him to vote." Goff described the Facebook tool as "the most significant new addition to the voter contact arsenal that's come around in years, since the phone call."
Last but certainly not least, you have the digital team's Quick Donate. It essentially brought the ease of Amazon's one-click purchases to political donations. "It's the absolute epitome of how you can make it easy for people to give money online," Goff said. "In terms of fundraising, that's as innovative as we needed to be." Storing people's payment information also let the campaign receive donations via text messages long before the Federal Elections Commission approved an official way of doing so. They could simply text people who'd opted in a simple message like, "Text back with how much money you'd like to donate." Sometimes people texted much larger dollar amounts back than the $10 increments that mobile carriers allow.
It's an impressive array of accomplishments. What you can do with data and code just keeps advancing. "After the last campaign, I got introduced as the CTO of the most technically advanced campaign ever," Slaby said. "But that's true of every CTO of every campaign every time." Or, rather, it's true of one campaign CTO every time.
That next most technically advanced CTO, in 2016, will not be Harper Reed. A few days after the election, sitting with his wife at Wicker Park's Handlebar, eating fish tacos, and drinking a Daisy Cutter pale ale, Reed looks happy. He had told me earlier in the day that he'd never experienced stress until the Obama campaign, and I believe him.
He regaled us with stories about his old performance troupe, Jugglers Against Homophobia, wild clubbing, and DJs. "It was this whole world of having fun and living in the moment," Reed said. "And there was a lot of doing that on the Internet."
"I spent a lot of time hacking doing all this stuff, building websites, building communities, working all the time, " Reed said, "and then a lot of time drinking, partying, and hanging out. And I had to choose when to do which."
We left Handlebar and made a quick pit stop at the coffee shop, Wormhole, where he first met Slaby. Reed cracks that it's like Reddit come to life. Both of them remember the meeting the same way: Slaby playing the role of square, Reed playing the role of hipster. And two minutes later, they were ready to work together. What began 18 months ago in that very spot was finally coming to an end. Reed could stop being Obama for America's CTO and return to being "Harper Reed, probably one of the coolest guys ever," as his personal Web page is titled.
But of course, he and his whole team of nerds were changed by the experience. They learned what it was like to have--and work with people who had-- a higher purpose than building cool stuff. "Teddy [Goff] would tear up talking about the president. I would be like, 'Yeah, that guy's cool,' " Reed said. "It was only towards the end, the middle of 2012, when we realized the gravity of what we were doing."
Part of that process was Reed, a technologist's technolgoist, learning the limits of his own power. "I remember at one point basically breaking down during the campaign because I was losing control. The success of it was out of my hands," he told me. "I felt like the people I hired were right, the resources we argued for were right. And because of a stupid mistake, or people were scared and they didn't adopt the technology or whatever, something could go awry. We could lose."
And losing, they felt more and more deeply as the campaign went on, would mean horrible things for the country. They started to worry about the next Supreme Court justices while they coded.
"There is the egoism of technologists. We do it because we can create. I can handle all of the parameters going into the machine and I know what is going to come out of it," Reed said. "In this, the control we all enjoyed about technology was gone."
We finished our drinks, ready for what was almost certainly going to be a long night, and headed to our first club. The last thing my recorder picked up over the bass was me saying to Harper, "I just saw someone buy Hennessy. I've never seen someone buy Hennessy." Then, all I can hear is that music.