Clinton bets on tech strategy to defeat Trump

Credit: Luke Sharrett

Credit: Luke Sharrett

After the 2012 election, when Mitt Romney's vaunted, custom-built Orca get-out-the-vote system failed on Election Day, Republicans publicly promised that they'd close the technology gap with Democrats by 2016. Instead, the party has a candidate who doesn't seem to think much of the data analytics operation pioneered by President Barack Obama. "I've always felt it was overrated," Donald Trump told The Associated Press on May 10. "Obama got the votes much more so than his data processing machine. And I think the same is true with me."

Hillary Clinton, by contrast, is doubling down on data. Earlier this month the campaign advertised three dozen analytics, digital and engineering openings, including one for an email writer. The listing specifies that an applicant should have experience using mass distribution programs and be familiar with A/B testing and optimization of subject lines and content: "Email is the digital heart of the Clinton campaign."

The campaign is looking to build on the digital engagement strategy devised by the Obama team, customizing the messages emailed to the estimated 8.6 million people on its list to make them as personal as possible. In March the campaign sent out 728 different kinds of messages, according to estimates from EDataSource, which monitors communications from political campaigns. That's almost double the messages emailed by her Democratic challenger, Bernie Sanders, and almost 10 times more than Trump, who sent only 74 variations to his list, which now has approximately 1.1 million addresses.

Clinton's using technology developed by Michael Slaby, who worked as the Obama campaign's chief integration and innovation officer in 2012. Today he's co-founder of Timshel, a startup that's developed a tool it calls the Groundwork to organize the voluminous data generated by mass email programs, donor tracking systems, and marketing analytics databases so that campaigns can wring the most from their supporters. "We are in some ways a head start," says Slaby. "Don't worry as much about things like performance and scalability. Let us worry about those problems, and you focus on the campaign."

Technology will be key to helping Clinton turn out Democratic and independent voters in November, especially if Trump continues to benefit from free media coverage. "This is about maximizing your base," says Lara Brown, director of George Washington University's political management program. "It's mostly mobilization. She's going to need that, but I would argue that any candidate in what's going to be a negative campaign -- which is where we're headed -- is going to need that."

Clinton has spent almost $500,000 on the company's services since announcing her candidacy in April last year, according to Federal Election Commission records. The campaign declined to comment about its data analytics strategy or its arrangement with Timshel, which was first reported by the website Quartz in 2015. Trump has spent about $40,000 on data services provided by NationBuilder, which advertises itself as a turnkey solution for campaigns that's cheaper but also less sophisticated than custom-built platforms.

Timshel, which means "you may" in Hebrew, was inspired by the ending of John Steinbeck's "East of Eden," which explores the biblical idea that people have control over whether to do good or evil. Its investors include former Google Chief Executive Officer Eric Schmidt, now executive chairman of Google parent company Alphabet. Slaby previously worked for Schmidt as chief technology strategist at TomorrowVentures, Schmidt's investment fund. Schmidt declined to comment.

Slaby, 38, sports hoodies and a beard speckled with white. He wouldn't discuss the specifics of the services he provides to the Clinton campaign. He says his goal with Timshel is to make the kinds of digital engagement strategies he's developed for political campaigns available to nonprofits and advocacy groups. Timshel's website notes that it's organized as a for-profit to better "recruit, retain, and reward" its staff.

By setting up a freestanding company, Slaby believes he can attract and keep talented programmers, rather than letting them disperse in between political campaigns. "We want this to become the foundation for a lot of the innovation in the social impact community," he says. "If that ends up being true for campaigns, that's great."

For investors, though, Timshel offers a vehicle for providing an immediate service to the Clinton campaign. "Federal law is clear," says Paul S. Ryan, deputy executive director of the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington nonprofit watchdog that tracks campaign finance issues. "Candidates must pay fair-market value for any goods and services in order to avoid receiving an illegal, in-kind contribution."

Timshel has signed other customers. Another early client was the Hive, an initiative of the nonprofit foundation USA for UNHCR, which supports the United Nations' refugee programs. Director Brian Reich says he can see evidence of Groundwork's effectiveness in the email communications he receives from Clinton's campaign.

Last month, as the Democratic primary in New York grew closer, the Sanders campaign called Reich several times to ask if it could count on his vote. Each time, he told the person on the other end of the line no. Clinton's communications, he says, seemed to account for his previous responses, making him feel as if he was having a conversation of sorts.

"Over the course of this campaign, their messaging to me, their asks of me, you can see it getting more and more sophisticated, just even based on what I like on a Facebook post or Twitter," Reich says. He received customized text messages, and subsequent emails referred to those messages, making it clear the system knew what he'd read and what he hadn't. "They're clearly listening," he says. But "there literally isn't a human being who is listening to me and going, 'Oh, Brian seems to care about this.'"

The bottom line: The Clinton campaign has spent almost $500,000 on a startup data service backed by Alphabet's Eric Schmidt.