How the Nerds Helped Obama Win the 2012 Election

The 2012 Presidential Election may be three weeks behind us, but I wanted to highlight this excellent piece by Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic titled “When The Nerds Go Marching In.” Alexis goes behind the scenes to get the scoop on the top caliber technology team that was behind Obama’s campaign. Led by campaign technology officer Harper Reed,

The team had elite and, for tech, senior talent — by which I mean that most of them were in their 30s — from Twitter, Google, Facebook, Craigslist, Quora, and some of Chicago’s own software companies such as Orbitz and Threadless, where Reed had been CTO. But even these people, maybe *especially* these people, knew enough about technology not to trust it. “I think the Republicans fucked up in the hubris department,” Reed told me. “I know we had the best technology team I’ve ever worked with, but we didn’t know if it would work. I was incredibly confident it would work. I was betting a lot on it. We had time. We had resources. We had done what we thought would work, and it still could have broken. Something could have happened.”


Reed’s team came in as outsiders to the campaign and by most accounts, remained that way. The divisions among the tech, digital, and analytics team never quite got resolved, even if the end product has salved the sore spots that developed over the stressful months. At their worst, in early 2012, the cultural differences between tech and everybody else threatened to derail the whole grand experiment.

By the end, the campaign produced exactly what it should have: a hybrid of the desires of everyone on Obama’s team. They raised hundreds of millions of dollars online, made unprecedented progress in voter targeting, and built everything atop the most stable technical infrastructure of any presidential campaign. To go a step further, I’d even say that this clash of cultures was a good thing: The nerds shook up an ossifying Democratic tech structure and the politicos taught the nerds a thing or two about stress, small-p politics, and the significance of elections.

Above all, Alexis goes behind the scenes to bring the face of the team closer to us, the read. It’s a deeply human story:

If you’re a nerd, Harper Reed is an easy guy to like. He’s brash and funny and smart. He gets you and where you came from. He, too, played with computers when they weren’t cool, and learned to code because he just could not help himself. You could call out nouns, phenomena, and he’d be right there with you: BBS, warez, self-organizing systems, Rails, the quantified self, Singularity. He wrote his first programs at age seven, games that his mom typed into their Apple IIC. He, too, has a memory that all nerds share: Late at night, light from a chunky monitor illuminating his face, fingers flying across a keyboard, he figured something out. 

It’s one of the best pieces I’ve read since the election. Highly, highly recommended.

On Another Type of Tournament, Magic: The Gathering

Noah Davis has a long feature about the three day Magic: The Gathering tournament in Seattle. As he recounts, it’s not just the nerds who enter this event:

The tournament at Showbox is both unusually intense and unusually laid back for a high-level Magic event. The pressure comes from the cash at hand and the extremely high quality of play, while the intimate feeling stems from the small group involved. Normal Pro Tour events — there are three every year — feature upwards of 400 players. The Grand Prix, tournaments that anyone can pay to enter, routinely draw more than 1,500 contestants and are played in massive convention spaces. “The laid back feel is nice. It’s nice not to have to walk around a big event hall,” David Ochoa says of the Players Championship, although he and others will admit they miss being recognized by adoring fans.

After a photo op of the entire group, the day kicks off with a Cube draft, one of the many formats of the game. Individual players are better at different variations of Magic, so the tournament features three varieties: Cube draft, booster draft, and Modern constructed. For our purposes here, the specific details of each format are not really important. Basic ones include which cards are allowed to be chosen and whether the decks are constructed before the tournament or drafted in a fantasy football-esque manner the day of the event.

After drafting, the players get 30 minutes to build their decks, then the action begins. Except it doesn’t. There’s a problem with the audio on the Internet stream. The Players Championship is a spectator experience, but it’s an online spectator experience. Fans are welcome inside the Showbox, but there will only be a handful throughout the weekend. The event isn’t promoted as an in-person experience. There’s little room because the space is dedicated to creating the Internet experience. Seven thousand viewers consistently watch the stream at all times, peaking just below 9,000 on the final day. The stage holds three tables, while five tables sit stage right for the other games. Equipment for the broadcast takes up the entire left side of the venue. Staff responsible for getting the tournament online outnumber the players nearly two to one. Two announcers at a time — over the course of three days, six men total will offer play-by-play and color — provide commentary throughout the tournament, focusing on the on-stage “feature match.” A large boom camera on the floor and two other cameras offer the producers three different angles on the action, allowing commentators and the audience at home to see into the players’ hands. But the game cannot start until the audio is ready. Brian Kibler suggests the group “hurry up and wait.” An organizer responds, “That’s what an event like this is about.” Everyone laughs, then sits patiently at their tables while the techs scramble to fix the issue. Soon, they do. Game on.

A fascinating read, even if I’ve never played a full game of Magic in my entire life.