Folks are abuzz about how the candidates are rollin’ and Tumbloggin’ around the Internet, trying to become more Pinteresting. Most of the discussion this year seems to center around what folks in the Web world call the front-end — turning GIFs, (now old-fashioned) web videos, and CSS and HTML5 effects into weapons of mass political destruction. Beyond its head-turning message, an underappreciated fact about the Obama campaign’s “Life of Julia” is that it was the first parallax slider-based campaign attack in American history.
But while the media and the pundits focus on how visual media is reshaping the debate, something else is going on. The Guardian reports this week that the Obama campaign’s long-awaited grassroots toolkit, with the minimalist name of “Dashboard,” is almost ready for public release:
The Dashboard project is being led by Michael Slaby, one of Obama’s digital gurus, along with Joe Rospars and Teddy Goff and Obama’s director of field organizing Jeremy Bird. Collectively, they have been quietly reinventing traditional presidential races for the wired age.
They have put together a team of more than 100 statisticians, predictive modellers, data mining experts, mathematicians, software engineers, bloggers, internet advertising experts and online organisers at the Obama For America headquarters in downtown Chicago, which has been labouring since its start to craft a new generation of digital campaign tools.
They are keeping specific details about Dashboard heavily under wraps for fear that they might lose the substantial advantage they now enjoy over their rivals in the Romney campaign.
They have also been keen not to reveal the tool until it has undergone substantial testing by staff. All that the Obama team will say is that it represents a major step forward that could “make a huge difference in how we organise for 2012”.
Dashboard, they add, will allow any volunteer for the first time “to join, connect with and build your neighbourhood team online”.
One intriguing fact about Dashboard is how late its’ introduction comes compared to 2008. That year, My.BarackObama.com was launched on the first day of the campaign, in February 2007. By this measure, Dashboard is 15 months late. But there’s good reason for it: Unlike the out-of-the-box Blue State Digital tools that formed the core of MyBO in 2008, Dashboard was rebuilt from the ground-up, using in-house developers, some of them recruited from Facebook and Google. (The person overseeing it all, Obama campaign CTO Harper Reed, is himself a startup veteran recruited from Threadless.)
We’ll have to wait for the formal launch — it’s apparently been in use by field staff for months, and I’m not on the early invite list for these things — but from all appearances, Dashboard represents an admirable commitment by the Obama campaign to rethinking older (and successful) ways of doing things. And doing so in a way that elevates raw engineering talent in a way they didn’t in 2008.
Dashboard should also spark a renewed debate about what’s important in digital campaigns.
At the end of the day, anyone can build a Facebook page with millions of likes. Anyone can set up a Tumblr in 5 minutes and anyone with a decent sense of humor can spin up GIFs and QuickMemes, and push them to Reddit, Buzzfeed, and Upworthy. The hard stuff — the interesting stuff — is marshaling an army of engineers and data geeks to translate online energy into better and more effective offline voter contact. The meme war might be more interesting, but it’s playing out almost exclusively among political operatives and the media elite. In a close race, ground game matters, and candidates who don’t prioritize putting their ground game online will find themselves playing catchup. We learned this in 2010, when even with the political winds at their back, Republicans faced an organizational deficit and fell short in a number of key Senate races.
Winning online takes more than a Twitter account and a WordPress plugin. It takes serious engineering resources to build sophisticated grassroots and microtargeting tools like the Obama campaign is doing, and data scientists to optimize the vote. In recent years, “custom” has become a four letter word in the world of web development, but the proliferation of programming frameworks from Ruby on Rails to CakePHP to CodeIgniter mean that developers no longer have to spend time reinventing the wheel. Basic functional components you would see on most websites (like user registration modules, or formulas to calculate distances and directions) come pre-built, so that engineers can spend time on the things that add value. Coding itself is becoming more like building a site in WordPress or Drupal.
Communicators and social media experts are a dime-a-dozen. They’re important, but it takes a lot to stand out from the pack. Good engineers are harder to come by, and the Obama campaign has invested in them in spades. As I argued at a recent panel at the CampaignTech conference, this starts with campaigns and political groups working with and valuing engineers and data scientists in the same way that they currently work with and value video producers, print designers, and press people.
With the general election in full swing, it will be interesting to see the level of game the GOP brings to the battle of the engineers.