Giving up Google wasn’t easy for Stephanie Hannon, if it’s easy for anyone. A person can get used to the big salary, cushy perks, and creative time Silicon Valley’s top employers offer. Plus, she was working on cool, potentially life-saving stuff, like tools to assist in natural disasters. The tech life was good.
Then, in February 2015, Democratic digital guru Teddy Goff asked her to serve as chief technology officer for Hillary Clinton’s yet-to-be-announced bid for president. And Hannon remembers thinking, “Is this the leap I want to make?”
The thing is, political campaigns come with all of Silicon Valley’s gruel but none of the glory. You barely have time to sleep, much less innovate for the sheer joy of the technology. And resources are limited. But as someone who worked for so long in an industry that has so few women at the top, Hannon knew what her decision had to be. “The journey to put the first woman in the White House was just too big not to be part of,” she says.
Now she’s trying to convince Silicon Valley’s finest to do the same. And so far, it’s working. Clinton’s tech team is already shaping up to be the largest in campaign history, and possibly the smartest. With the general election four months away, Hannon has assembled a team of more than 50 engineers and developers who left lucrative careers at places like Google, Facebook, and Twitter to help code Clinton’s way to more votes, more dollars, and, if all goes according to plan, the White House.
That Clinton would have a sizable tech team this year isn’t at all unusual. In 2012, President Obama’s campaign attracted technologists with similarly stacked resumes, and his tech advantage helped him win the election. Today, a solid tech foundation is an expectation for any presidential aspirant.
At least, that’s what one of the two major candidates this year seems to think.
‘What technology does is gives us an edge in places where things are close.’ Kyle Rush, Deputy CTO, Clinton Campaign
While Donald Trump has used the cable news cycle and social media masterfully to garner attention over the last year, he only hired an in-house digital director last month. And that, people familiar with the campaign say, is about the extent of his tech team. (The Trump campaign wouldn’t comment.) In other words, with just four months until election day, Trump’s chances of catching up tech-wise are slim. Clinton’s tech team is already the size of a well-staffed startup and has had a year-long head start testing itself in primary contests across the country.
Yet, as with so much else this election cycle, a niggling doubt remains: maybe the conventional wisdom is wrong. Maybe you don’t need to spend all this money on industrial-grade tech to become president. Maybe you just need a killer Twitter feed. Yet even if that’s true—and it probably isn’t—Trump’s tech deficit presents a bigger problem for Republicans. The GOP has persistently lagged Democrats when it comes to good tech tools. The Trump campaign’s apathy may only leave the party farther behind.
No Votes for Innovation
During the 2012 election, President Obama’s technology team got a tremendous amount of credit for helping him defeat Mitt Romney. But ask anyone who worked on Obama’s campaign, and they’ll tell you that shiny tech alone doesn’t win elections.
“It’s a mistake for a campaign to think that it’s in the business of innovation,” says Goff, who was Obama’s 2012 digital director before joining the Clinton campaign. “A campaign is in the business of recruiting volunteers, registering voters, persuading people, and raising money.”
But better tech can make those crucial tasks easier and more efficient. And in a post-Bush versus Gore world, where no single vote can be left to chance, that means even incremental advantages can be the difference between winning and losing. That’s why in 2012 the major presidential campaigns entered the business of building technology themselves.
During the 2008 election cycle, the campaign relied heavily on existing tech platforms. “We didn’t build a lot of tech in ‘08,” says Obama’s then-CTO Michael Slaby. “We didn’t have the time or resources. We were opportunistic consumers of new things.” But in 2012, facing no primary competitors, Obama’s team had time to build and crash-test products from scratch. That led to new tools such as the massive voter management database Narwhal, which stitched together different buckets of voter data to paint a more complete picture of who the campaign should target. That effort inspired the Romney campaign to build its own voter database, Orca, which famously crashed on Election Day.
In the process, Democrats gained a wealth of institutional knowledge the Clinton campaign has used as a blueprint. Now, members of Clinton’s tech team say their task isn’t so much to invent the next big thing in political tech. It’s to ensure that all of the little things work a lot better.
“There’s a danger in not solving real problems because you’re looking for the big shiny thing,” says Clinton’s chief product officer Osi Imeokparia, who spent nearly a decade at Google as product management director. “If you can increase the efficiency of the very simple things, you see it pay back in dividends.”
Evolution, Not Revolution
In many ways, the approach Imeokparia describes mirrors Clinton’s overall campaign strategy. The presumptive Democratic nominee portrays herself as the candidate of evolution, not revolution—a sharp contrast to the sweeping promises of Bernie Sanders and Trump.
“Together, we won’t just make promises we can’t keep,” Clinton said during the Democratic primary debate in New York City. “We’ll deliver results that will improve the lives of the people in New York and in America.”
GOP strategists see Trump’s approach as a series of missed opportunities.
The tech team’s strategy is in line with that ethos. It’s also consistent with Hannon’s own philosophy. Though Hannon came up as an engineer, her role at Google required understanding not just how tech tools get built but also the practical needs of the people who use them. In the world of a campaigning, those people are the donors, voters, field staffers, internal staff, and volunteers on the ground. Their needs are specific, and they might not sound sexy as part of a pitch deck for a VC. But building tools to meet their needs has proven crucial to pitching voters.
And so, within her first few weeks, Hannon had already gone door-knocking in Iowa to find out how or if tech could improve the traditionally paper-based process of getting out the vote. By January, she had assembled a staff of more than 30 (about the size of the tech team Obama had on Election Day in 2012) and was sending them out to do the same.
“If we can get three more door knocks out of every person, that’s a big deal,” Hannon says. “If we can spare 15 minutes of an organizer’s day not to have to do contact management, so it can be automated, that’s a big deal.”
Those incremental gains may not be the kind of stuff that makes for big headlines, but it’s the kind of thing that can make a big difference.
“Technology doesn’t ever win elections,” says Kyle Rush, Clinton’s deputy CTO, who joined the campaign from marketing tech outfit Optimizely and also worked on Obama’s 2012 team. “But I think what technology does is gives us an edge in places where things are close.”
For example, one of the campaign’s more successful subtle tweaks was a change it made to a landing page where donors can save their credit card information. As any e-commerce company could tell you, this step is key to converting people from window shoppers to paying customers. The same holds true in politics.
‘If we can get three more door knocks out of every person, that’s a big deal.’ Stephanie Hannon, CTO, Clinton campaign
So the Clinton campaign ran A/B tests to find a page design that would convince the maximum number of donors to store their data. The first design required three separate clicks, and donors had to enter an email address, create a password, and confirm that password before the process was complete. The second design pre-populated the donor’s email address and required one less click. That simple change led to a nearly 240 percent increase in the number of donors who were saving their credit cards.
Clinton’s tech team has also acted as a stopgap in times of crisis. Last year, for example, an outside vendor’s email service crashed the day of the Federal Election Commission’s deadline for reporting campaign contributions. Campaigns typically use that day to make a final fundraising push for the quarter to ensure the number they file looks as glowingly high as possible. In four hours, the Clinton campaign cobbled together a makeshift email system, codenamed Balloon, that brought in $700,000.
“Those are the moments I live for in this campaign, people coming together to solve really hard problems at a pace that doesn’t exist in any other job that I’ve seen,” says Deepa Subramaniam, an Adobe alum who now oversees Clinton’s donation tool.
A Lost Year
Having tech talent on the inside can accomplish a lot. But it’s hard to ignore just how much other candidates have accomplished without it.
During primary season, Sanders defied the odds by winning 22 primary races and out-raised the Clinton campaign several months in a row, all by relying heavily on an outside consulting firm and a vast army of volunteer technologists.
Trump, meanwhile, has built a winning campaign by making expert use of existing platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, forgoing the more granular voter targeting tactics competitors like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz used.
His approach raises tricky questions about the real value of building an internal tech stack. “He obviously has enough tech for the campaign he’s running,” says one former Obama 2012 staffer. “Is it the same tech as Hillary Clinton? No. Does it need to be? Probably not.”
The difference between the two campaigns is emblematic of their overarching strategies, says Slaby, whose company, The Groundwork, has worked with the Clinton campaign this cycle. Where Clinton’s team is using scratch-built tools to shave off time for volunteers and staffers and make her ground game more efficient, Trump is running a national strategy, using television and social media to get his message into every household.
“It’s not like he’s not using technology,” Slaby says. “It’s just that the tech needed to backup his strategy is Twitter.”
But that’s a big gamble, Slaby adds. Yes, this has been an unconventional election, and yes, both Clinton and Trump are already household names. It’s possible that no amount of targeting could ever change voters’ minds when both candidates are such known quantities. But the last two elections have powerfully suggested otherwise. Why leave it to chance this time around?
That line of criticism isn’t just coming from Democrats. Republican strategists who went through the 2012 cycle with Romney see Trump’s approach as a series of missed opportunities. “They’re just underperforming at everything they do,” said one former Romney staffer. “If they raise $10 million, they should have raised $20 million. Nothing they do maximizes the opportunities in front of them.”
That’s not just bad for Trump. It’s bad for the party, the Romney staffer says. Presidential campaigns tend to serve as political research and development incubators. These campaigns are the only time when the parties have access to both big budgets and the opportunity to try out new tools on a national scale. Thanks to the Obama campaign and the Howard Dean campaign before it in 2004, the Democrats have tended to have a head start on campaign tech, passing their knowledge on from one campaign to the next.
After Romney lost to Obama, the Republican party acknowledged it needed to invest in tech, and a series of startups spun out of the Romney campaign to help GOP candidates do just that. This cycle, Trump has ignored that lesson (and so many others). And he has ridden that iconoclasm to success, in part because his fame and outsized personality transcend political norms. But just because it’s worked for Trump doesn’t mean it will work for other Republicans down the line.
For those GOPers who still care about the future of the party, that’s a scary thought.
“The Democrats are going to come out of this, win or lose, with another 1,000 people who have really big ideas about campaigns and tech,” the Romney staffer says. “It’s almost like a lost cycle for Republicans.”
In the meantime, Hannon says she’s hiring.