Meet the newest tech start-up: the Obama campaign

TechPresident
The Ticket

Were you to walk into parts of the Obama reelection campaign's headquarters, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in Silicon Valley.

Beginning last year, Obama's re-election effort started hiring dozens of designers and developers, engineers, and data scientists. A cross check of the Obama for America FEC filings and Twitter bios turns up at least 36 hires whose resumes could place them on a tech team, rather than a political one. A perusal of their job board turns up a slew of positions located in "HQ Digital," ranging from front end developer to senior web engineer.

"I am here to make sure technology is a successful force multiplier within the campaign," the campaign's chief technology officer, Harper Reed, said in a statement given to the Chicago Tribune when he was hired. Reed came to the campaign from the startup world, where he ran a hosting company, served as CTO of the collaborative Chicago-based t-shirt company Threadless and did a stint with the hosting giant Rackspace.

On one hand, the campaign is harnessing technology to better splice the mountains of data that it can now collect on potential supporters. Rayid Ghani, now OfA's chief data scientist, has a reputation for taking data analysis beyond simple sorting; past projects have focused on looking at how things like past consumer data can predict future purchases.

But the campaign is also using tech to work around the sometimes arcane rules governing electioneering. Take last week's news, for example, that the Obama campaign has found a way to collect donations by text message. Mobile is unquestionably the hottest new channel for fundraising: Nonprofits, government and mobile carriers collaborated in 2010 to raise nearly $33 million in donations for Haiti earthquake relief. According to a Pew Internet & American Life Project study, nearly 10 percent of Americans have texted a charitable contribution through their mobile phone.

But while non-profits can reap the benefits thanks to a collaboration with mobile carriers, at least for now, political campaigns cannot. The Federal Election Commission denied a 2010 plan to collect political donations via text message because of a variety of issues ranging from disclosure requirements to the timing of payments.

As first reported by Time, the Obama campaign began collecting and storing credit card information and phone numbers from willing donors in a program called "Quick Donate." This process also collects FEC-mandated information about each donor, such as employer and occupation. Time compares this to Amazon's One-Click for campaigns: Like the online retailer, the Obama campaign can now store "customer" information so that, when they decide to make a transaction after their first one, they only need to log in and push a single button. And if a donor signed up in this way sends a text message with a dollar amount they want to give, the credit card already on file is re-billed.

In February, ahead of Nevada caucuses, the campaign rolled out a new voter-registration technology that collects voter registrations via tablet or touch-screen phone and delivers a paper form to election officials. There's no word from the Obama campaign about how well the mobile voter registration test went, and news of Obama donation-by-text efforts only broke last week. But these are two places that political campaigns have lagged behind other types of political organizing, in part because of antiquated rules. The last time the FEC overhauled its rules was in 2006, after a process that began in 2004, although its members have started to discuss another update.

Mitt Romney's campaign is far from Luddite and has drawn attention for its use of voter targeting techniques to reach people both online and off. At one point during the primaries, for instance, Romney's digital director Zac Moffatt told TechPresident the campaign had bought all reserve inventory in Iowa and New Hampshire for video ads appearing before YouTube videos. That said, Romney has faced a long primary season and done so with a lower bank balance than Obama. Romney's digital operation, working with the online communications firm Moffatt co-founded, Targeted Victory, is focused instead on doing what it can to keep money coming in and voters going to the polls in a state-by-state ground war.

Programmers like to say that "code makes easy things easy and hard things possible." Few things are inherently easy in politics, but the two largest campaigns this cycle have already demonstrated that technology makes at least some parts of campaigning easier.

Nick Judd is managing editor for TechPresident. This is the first in a series of regular dispatches for Yahoo News about how campaigns are using technology in the 2012 election.

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