Barack Obamas digital strategists search for place in Hillary Clintons world – Politico
They’re not exactly rattling tin cups on the sidewalk, but the legions of Democratic digital strategists produced by the Obama victories find themselves in a tough spot, career-wise.
They haven’t been tapped by the Brooklyn headquarters of Hillary for America, but are holding back from signing up with other candidates or issues campaigns, for fear of getting on the wrong side of Clinton — and nixing their chance to play a future role in her potentially $2 billion presidential bid.
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Many of the hundreds of tech experts are spending their time doing non-political work, applying their skills in crafting the killer emails, perfecting clicky online ads and analyzing audience data for corporate and nonprofit clients ranging from the Chicago Cubs to the Art Institute of Chicago.
But there’s nothing like using your digital savvy to put someone in the White House. For many in this crowd of Democrats, that reduces their job prospects to one person: Clinton. And while the potential pay-off might be worth it, it means, for the moment, being in a state of limbo.
“People are choosing not to work for other campaigns because the outcome seems so likely and no one wants to close off their options for November,” said one longtime Democratic digital strategist who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of being seen as critiquing the Clinton campaign. “People want to work for the likely nominee, or for satellite groups that don’t isolate them from that nominee or anyone else in her universe.”
For the current crop of left-leaning campaign tech experts, the Hillary-dominated landscape is a striking contrast to the boom happening on the right, where there’s a long and growing list of presidential possibilities — from Marco Rubio to Jeb Bush to Rand Paul to Ted Cruz to Carly Fiorina to Mike Huckabee — eager to recruit teams capable of winning the Internet.
With fewer trained and tested digital strategists on the GOP side, Republican campaign experts describe an embarrassment of riches, and options, for top-notch talents who want to spend this election cycle vying for the White House.
Hillary Clinton has begun assembling the upper rungs of a high-powered tech team, but is still in the early stages. Katie Dowd, a veteran of Clinton’s 2008 bid who later worked as a tech strategist at the State Department, is leading the campaign’s digital operation. Teddy Goff, the day-to-day digital director of Obama’s data-obsessed 2012 reelection bid, is an adviser. Clinton has also brought on people with track records in building large, targeted online communities, like Jess Morales Rocketto, a former labor strategist with the AFL-CIO.
That core team is expected to ramp up over the next year and a half, drawing in more staffers and consultants experienced in the art of data analysis and mobile targeting. Already, her campaign job board lists dozens of digital posts, many of them niche, from website optimization experts to spots on a social media squad.
“Check back often as new roles open up,” counsels the Clinton job board, “we’ll be hiring continuously throughout the campaign cycle.”
Democratic digital experts are treading carefully as they try not to ruin their chances for a future spot on the campaign. The stakes are high. A role in a successful presidential run can make a reputation, be exceptionally profitable — and act as a stepping stone to a job in the White House.
There is at least one high-profile exception to Clinton-inspired caution among digital Democrats. Revolution Messaging, a D.C. firm whose partners include Obama 2008 mobile expert Scott Goodstein and campaign videographer Arun Chaudhary, recently got attention for signing on with Bernie Sanders. The firm stole of bit of Clinton’s thunder, helping the Vermont senator raise $3 million in four days, according to a Revolution press release touting the successful launch.
That kind of work for an upstart candidate has its appeal, said Juan González, the managing director of Echo & Co., a digital strategy firm that grew out of Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential run.
“All Hillary needs to do in this campaign is protect her brand,” he said. “On Bernie’s side, he’s staking out exciting positions. Do you want to spend your time engaging in brand management or do you want to engage in policy conversations?”
But many campaign tech veterans are cautious about irking Clinton. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who recently launched his campaign, may provide the next test. O’Malley was said to be hunting for a digital firm, but no one has stepped forward to say they’re on board. O’Malley’s campaign did not return a request for comment.
While in some ways work for Sanders or O’Malley could be seen as a try-out for the Clinton campaign, it also might burn bridges to Brooklyn or turn off other valuable clients like Emily’s List, which raises millions each election for pro-choice women and endorsed Clinton in April. Some fret that crossing Hillary for America could threaten scores of would-be clients due to the relationships the Clintons have built over decades in Democratic politics.
Not everyone sees Clinton’s early dominance of the Democratic field as a problem.
“In some ways, the lack of a splintered field is a good thing,” says Betsy Hoover, the director of online organizing for Obama in 2012 who founded 270 Strategies with fellow Obama vets Jeremy Bird and Mitch Stewart.
Hoover says some of those who would otherwise be competing against one another at the helm of Hillary Clinton’s digital operations can instead redirect their skills toward helping would-be Democratic governors, members of Congress, and mayors, as well as groups advocating for progressive causes.
Many digital Democrats are, in fact, trying to predict what issues will be in the spotlight for 2016, along the lines of the last election cycle’s “war on women.” Partnering with the non-profits and PACs expert on those issues could provide a solid line of work.
But that approach is complicated by the fact that Clinton has nearly locked up the field without detailing where she stands on many key policy issues. González points to international trade as a potential hot topic, but Clinton has yet to say clearly what she makes of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the controversial proposed agreement now at the center of the trade debate.
A safer bet, say campaign tech experts, is attending to the plumbing that any party nominee will rely upon eventually. Taryn Rosenkranz, a longtime Democratic strategist now leading the firm New Blue Interactive, counts seven state parties on her company’s client roster.
Those shops tackle much of the on-the-ground targeting and turnout for Democrats, and “they’re working to have that infrastructure ready,” says Rosenkranz, no matter whose name is on the ballot come election day.
For many, the goal is to stay relevant as Clinton ramps up her tech team.
“Even if there’s only going to be one campaign, it’s going to be a big campaign, and there will be a ton of jobs,” says Andy Oare, a vice president at the Glover Park Group who got his start as a volunteer in South Carolina on the 2008 Obama campaign and joined the digital team in Chicago for the 2012 reelection.
Some eager to secure a good spot with Hillary for America are trying to become the go-to person on whatever technology will inevitably pop up as the new thing between now and November 2016.
Aharon Wasserman was a field staffer in Georgia for Obama in 2008 when he and some fellow staffers created, as a side project, an internal social network that eventually became the way Obama organized ground staff across the country.
“Go back six months and nobody needed to have a Periscope strategy,” Wasserman said, referring to the Twitter-owned video streaming app now enjoying time in the spotlight as the campaign tech tool du jour. “Now they might.”