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New Technologies Boosted Obama Campaign's Efforts

Robert Siegel speaks with Harper Reed, who was chief technology officer for the Obama reelection campaign, about the strategies they employed to mobilize volunteers and reach voters.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

As far as we know, supercomputers weren't used by either of the presidential campaigns this year. But other technological advances are credited with helping propel President Obama to victory. The campaign developed new online tools, including a program called Dashboard that allowed volunteers to work remotely. Why head into a phone bank when you can make calls from home? Campaign-produced videos in English and Spanish explained how that worked: Log in and find voters you can call.

(SOUNDBITE OF DASHBOARD INSTRUCTIONAL VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: On the left, you'll see the contact information for the supporter you'll be calling. On the right, you'll see a script.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

SIEGEL: Well, we're going to talk now to the one of the brains behind these innovations. Harper Reed is the Obama campaign's chief technology officer. Or should I say was the Obama campaign's chief technology officer?

HARPER REED: That's correct, although they won't let me leave.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: Either way, welcome to the program. We've been hearing a lot about Dashboard. Give us some sense. How important a tool did that turn out to be?

REED: Well, one of the big innovations between 2008 and 2012 was just how big, I guess, the Internet has gotten for all of us. And we wanted to ride up to that as well by giving people who would normally participate in a field office an online component of that. And that is - that's really what Dashboard became. And so all the volunteers could use this, kind of to check out where - what their progress was, what our progress as a campaign was. And, really, what it was meant to be was an online field office. And I think that's what turned it out to be as well.

SIEGEL: An online field office. Now, I went - during the campaign, I went to a Republican field office in Orlando where I saw a bank of pretty sophisticated telephones. People came in, they sat down, they had a script, they keyed in numbers, you know, the answers to their questions. In effect, you didn't have to do that given the app that you guys developed.

REED: Well, yeah. And one of the big things that we did is in the field offices, you would still get a script and you printed out a list and you'd call that list and read the script. But we wanted to offer this same experience to our people at home, to the volunteers who are either in an area that doesn't have a field office or maybe they don't want to leave or maybe they're unable to leave.

We had a really great story that went through Dashboard that we found out, when someone posted it into Dashboard, about a veteran who was in a hospital and wanted to participate and wanted to make calls to re-elect the president. And this person was able to use these online tools to do the same tasks that you would do if you're able to make it into a field office.

SIEGEL: There was something else cultural happening here. And perhaps we can play a bit from the end of the video in which there's a young woman instructing people how to use this.

(SOUNDBITE OF DASHBOARD INSTRUCTIONAL VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Remember when you're making these calls that you're representing Obama for America. So take pride in that and have fun. You just may find someone who shares your enthusiasm.

SIEGEL: She's saying you might meet someone with whom you share this enthusiasm. Have fun doing it.

REED: Mm-hmm.

SIEGEL: You're trying to connect for the Obama campaign in the same way that people connect for other reasons in social media.

REED: This is something that - one of the most important parts about Dashboard was it was oriented by your team. And so the team was your neighborhood team. And there was a team leader and you'd be a team member. Some of the engineers and I live in the same building, and so we all signed up for our team. And that team - we then saw some of our neighbors that were also in the same building. And suddenly, you meet people that have this shared affinity.

And through that, you can then get together and make calls and participate, go to Iowa, knock on some doors and all that important work that actually helped get the president elected.

SIEGEL: When somebody made a call to somebody, using the call tool, would it be registered somewhere that that person had been called, don't call again to that person...

REED: Mm-hmm.

SIEGEL: ...or you've made a successful contact.

REED: Yes, that is correct. It would be registered.

SIEGEL: And when the caller ID...

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: ...on my phone or somebody else's phone showed who was calling, would it be a recognizable national number, or would it be that person's number from wherever they were calling in, New Jersey or Maine or...

REED: It would actually be the person making the call. So if I was to call you, it would be my personal phone number that showed up on your caller ID.

SIEGEL: So right there, you've defeated one of the great problems of calling out in politics, which is caller ID telling me, uh-huh, looks like a junk phone call coming in.

REED: But it's, you know, and I like to think of it - and this is - I mean, it seems to me that this is more of a connection where we're able to connect to people in a very real way because it's personal. It's from your personal phone number. And, of course, some people block caller ID and all that stuff. But for the most part, people just use their cell phones and made the calls, made that connection. And sometimes, it went terribly, but most of the time, it went very positively.

SIEGEL: Looking ahead to the next election, how do you balance this equation: When is it too late to get started; when is it so early that you miss the technologies that develop in time for the campaign?

REED: Mm-hmm. Yeah. That's actually a very good question. I feel that we got started in early 2011, and we did miss some technologies because of how early we started. But it worked out. And I think a lot of the reasons it worked out was because we hired the right team and they were able to just - to make it work.

SIEGEL: Well, Harper Reed, thank you very much for talking with us today.

REED: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Harper Reed was the Obama campaign's chief technology officer. He spoke to us from Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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