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Not f@*king it up - Barack Obama's CTO for 2012 Presidential Election Harper Reed on political campaigning


By Stephen Lepitak, -

April 5, 2013 | 6 min read

Barack Obama's victory at the polls last year was far more pronounced than initially expected, with predictions that the presidential race would go to the wire proving well wide of the mark as he handily swept aside Mitt Romney.

And as he was sworn in for a second term as US president, Obama had a host of individuals to thank for contributing to his marked success, among them Harper Reed, chief technology officer (CTO) for the campaign and a man who couldn’t be further removed in personality from the that of a traditional politician, being both loud and candid but also highly likeable and enthusiastic.

When The Drum catches up with Reed for a coffee at South By South West where he is speaking as part of a seminar called ‘Doing Business in America’, the conversation quickly turns to his hatred of newspapers. “I don’t want news to die, but I want newspapers to die,” he tells us, before offering his views as to the pointless need for tabloid titles, which he describes as ‘the cult around paper’.

“I live in Chicago where they have all these great newspapers, but it’s 'news' lowercase, 'PAPER' uppercase. They still have those giant presses and all the stuff they need and I just think that it’s ridiculous when, in the world that we live in, all of our media is consumed through the internet. Most of them are taking news from the internet, from Reuters or some wire, and they’re about 24 hours too late. You’ve already read it twice from someone who was there and then from someone who has reported on what that person has said, and then the newspaper just regurgitates it.”

As interesting a discussion the future of newspapers is, we have come to talk politics, or more specifically Reed's own history in politics.

For four years Reed was CTO for crowdsourcing T-shirt retailer Threadless, leaving in 2009 with, he admits, “no idea what I was going to do or what direction I was heading in”. While wandering through what he describes as his ‘Vision Quest’ to find his path, a friend offered him the opportunity to work on a project for The Mayor of Chicago – a role that would eventually bring him into contact with those mounting Obama’s second presidential campaign.

“I spoke to a guy who asked me to help them out with the tech. I said yes and then I was asked to become the CTO which sounded fucking crazy. I said OK. It was a pretty drawn out process, all my friends knew it was happening, but I didn’t really think about it. I was just hanging out and helping people get the candidates the tech."

"I didn’t think of the ramifications,” he admits, before revealing matter-of-factly, “the first thing that the campaign manager said to me was ‘don’t fuck it up’”.

The 2008 Obama campaign was famous for its use of social media, especially aiding the burgeoning profile of Twitter, but this was not always deliberate according to Reed.

"A lot of that stuff was ‘Oh there’s Twitter. We should do something with that!’ Not, 'Oh, we have to make sure that our Twitter is awesome'.

2012 was somewhat different, with Reed using the knowledge he’d gained in his previous role, including crowdsourcing techniques and the ability to gather and analyse vast amounts of data, through the numerous platforms available to the campaign and its target voters.

“The difference between 2008 and 2012 was that we were aggressively deliberate about what we were doing in 2012. In 2008 it was a lot more about experimentation and a lot more about using the tools that were suddenly around. For example, the iPhone was released in 2007. App Store was released shortly after that. They didn’t have all of the things that they have now and one of the things I’ve been saying recently is that Twitter, Facebook, iPhone – all of these things that we take for granted – in 2007 and 2008 we used them, in 2012 our parents used them. The difference between the ubiquity of what it was like then and what it’s like now around technology is drastically different.”

This time however, social platforms had grown in number, with both candidates able to push their messages through Tumblr and Pinterest – which he describes as “pretty Republican” – as well as through Facebook and Twitter.

“We built a lot of technology to take advantage of those things. The campaign was a billion dollar company. We built a billion dollar company from scratch in 18 months.”

Asked how important those platforms were in the final election result, Reed surprisingly highlights the importance of traditional election tactics such as going door-to-door and speaking to potential voters, but concedes that “traditional voter contact is going to shift".

“It’s going to become less efficient. Imagine where after someone has knocked on your door, they then follow it up with a Facebook message that said ‘Great to talk to you. As we discussed, here’s this thing that you can do’. You can give them that extra push and that’s what we looked at – how does social media and technology augment the things that we know work? So what we learned from 2008, and to make sure we didn’t fuck up in 2012, was more about ensuring we were doing the same things but doing them times 10.”

Asked how tech savvy Obama is, Reed admits to not truly knowing, but says that he spoke to his campaign manager about things on a daily basis, and showed an interest in what everyone working on the campaign was doing.

“You were able to do your thing. He trusts everyone in a big way so the campaigners are able to act independently as his campaign brain. Of course he came in and helped out, but he wasn’t hyper consoling or trying to stop or solve problems. That wasn’t the only thing he was doing. He’s the President, he has other things to worry about."

Next up for Reed he has plans to take time out and is also set to travel Australia and the UK to discuss his experiences of working on the Obama campaign, but he refuses to rule out a return to political campaigning if he "really believed in someone or was worried about America”. We get a distinct impression, however, that he’s looking for his next challenge away from the world of politics and that another Vision Quest may be imminent.

Reed will be speaking at The DMA's Technology Summit on 30 April.

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