Whenever I heard about the role technology played in Obama’s campaigns, it read something like this: “Obama seizes victory with social media,” or, “Bush campaign lags in use of digital…leads to GOP failure.” What most of these articles miss is not the integral role technology played in Democratic success, but the mobilizing forces and deliberate thought processes that were behind the deployment of that technology. Michael Slaby, former CTO then Chief Innovation & Integration Officer at Obama for America (OFA), was one of the driving forces behind the centralization and elevation of the digital platform that enabled Obama’s successes in ’08 and ’12.
Many of us can probably relate to the sentiments that led Slaby to take on the campaign initially. He described himself in “an argument of violent agreement” on how terrible it was that the Democrats had managed to lose again (circa 2004, after W’s reelection was solidified). And he realized, “Instead of sitting back and criticizing, why don’t I do this for a living? Basically, I reached a point where I either needed to stop caring or start working.” With perhaps more idealism at the time than he would admit, Michael saw a career in politics as a way to make the world better.
When Obama announced in 2007 that he was running for the presidency, Slaby “flung himself” at the campaign. That February, Obama looked like a complete long shot as President elect. Slaby describes working for the campaign as a lot like a startup: “There are high expectations, unrealistic time lines, and the more hats that you can wear, the more valuable you are.”
A bit of context is necessary here. Some people describe wearing multiple hats as multitasking across fields like marketing, finance, and operations. While this type of cross-focus may be valuable, it’s not exactly what Michael means. Like all good aspiring technologists, Slaby majored in creative writing and biotech at Brown. He conveniently fit his studies somewhere squarely between playing varsity soccer, practicing stone carving, or starring as lead actor in the school play. One can fast forward the progression of this sundry story line to the Swiss Army knife of skills Slaby possessed when starting with OFA in 2007. It read something like, web programmer meets UX fanatic meets DC political aficionado. Perhaps most importantly, he believed fully in the man he was working for.
The ‘08 campaign began with seven dynamic individuals committed to executing the campaign, and executing it well. Slaby candidly shares that “the role of social media got overstated in ’08… it was still really new and less strategically central.” What mattered that year was not vastly different than what had mattered in previous campaigns: winning. The question was how to win.
After discarding a slew of ideas, the ‘08 campaign team decidedly focused on a few key areas. The first was the elevation of digital, not as a subset of a broader communications strategy, but as its own engagement mechanism. Additionally, since Slaby was working for a non-traditional Democratic campaign, they needed to change the nature of the electorate base–which involved finding new people, and finding them in new places. Now, you are allowed to insert social media–not as a vehicle on its own, but as a deliberate means to an end.
Social media vehicles provided a platform for giving people hooks, as well as communicating to relevant voters that they could participate and play a meaningful role in this process. Obama went on to receive the largest number of votes for a presidential candidate in American history and won the ‘08 electoral vote by the largest margin in 12 years–so partisanship aside, it’s hard to argue that the mobilization strategy wasn’t effective. In addition, the team spent over a year focused on securing Iowa. Which, similarly, is not a unique endeavor in itself—but many have argued that it was important for Obama specifically to win Iowa in order to secure the Democratic nomination. What was key for Slaby’s team was not the actual use of digital media in Iowa, but rather, activating the momentum and channeling the energy the win in Iowa generated. The team went from being short-staffed to having volunteer community groups around the country that OFA otherwise couldn’t have afforded.
If we’re being honest, the ’08 campaign team was the first that really had the chance to use digital in any meaningful way, so you can’t just attribute its presence to strategy. What Slaby and his team did, uniquely and successfully, was to elevate the role of digital and embed it throughout the campaign culture.
Fast forward to 2012. Slaby felt a strong sense of ownership, investment, and unfinished business from the ‘08 campaign that caused him to restart with OFA as part of the reelection team. Slaby notes that “the real value of incumbency is time,” and his team was now in the exciting position to really embrace technology.
There were two big shifts that occurred during the campaign’s “off” years that positioned the team to be able to build something more durable. The first was that social media had achieved its generally ubiquitous status, and had become central to the way that people (and voters) consumed information. Second, the commercialization of cloud computing allowed the team to hire world-class technologists and unleash their minds. It enabled the team to get past the idea that experience in politics was a requisite for building campaign technology.
I remember sitting down for dinner with Slaby the night before Election Day, and thinking it was odd that he wasn’t more worried about the following day’s outcome. “Shouldn’t you be working extra hard tonight?,” I asked. Slaby laughed. By that point, the team had every confidence that Obama was going to be reelected, in large part because digital is more accurate than traditional polling—it’s extracted over a much larger data set. Slaby calls this “microlistening,” and it’s the core tenant that the ‘12 campaign analytics team centered its focus around. That, in turn, gave the ’12 campaign team final confidence in their efforts and the end result. I hadn’t even cast my ballot yet, and Slaby and his team already knew what the outcome would be. I was aghast.
When you ask Slaby about his prediction on the role of technology in the ’16 campaigns, he’ll tell you something like this: “Since there won’t be an incumbent, that creates the challenge of maintaining momentum, innovation, and integration in the absence of that continuity.” True. The reality is that none of us can fully predict the realm of possibilities that will exist for tech to engage with mass constituencies. Future campaign teams should take advantage of the foundations that’s already been laid by Slaby and others. It’s up to them how much they decide to learn and leverage from it.