Alec Ross is one of America’s leading experts on innovation. He served for four years as Senior Advisor for Innovation to the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a role that earned him a Distinguished Honor Award from the State Department. He is currently a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Johns Hopkins University and serves as an advisor to investors, corporations, and government leaders. Ross lives in Baltimore with his wife and their three young children. His book is The Industries of the Future.
Question: How has technology changed political campaigns?
Alec Ross: I do not think large campaigns will ever be the same. There were some absolute rock stars on the Obama campaign—Joe Rospars and Megan Phillips and Chris Hughes. And one thing very interesting about the Obama campaign was [that] those people who are really running the campaign, people like David Plouffe and David Axelrod, they empowered these young entrepreneurs on the campaign to run wild with technology and truly test the boundaries of what it could do.
I’ll give one example of something that, at that time, I don’t know if people quite understood how significant it would be, but it turned out to be significant—when the campaign decided to announce its vice-presidential pick of vice president Biden by text message, and people could send in their cell phone numbers and get the alert by text message.
One of the things that was amazing about that was, because so many people subscribed, because so many people wanted the text message alert, we suddenly now were able to capture the cell phone numbers of huge numbers of Americans, which enabled us then to have ongoing communications with them.
I think that a lot of what the Obama campaign pioneered in terms of its use of technology is just going to have to be a standard part of every national campaign by both parties from now on. And I think that a lot of that would evolve to congressional gubernatorial races, because some of what we saw. I might have this number wrong, but I think that Joe Rospars has a 190 person staff. One of the things that we know about technology is that it becomes increasingly commoditized and increasingly inexpensive. So things that may have cost the Obama campaign million of dollars, some entrepreneur is out there figuring it out how to do for a hundred of thousand of dollars, and how to sell it. So I have a feeling that every candidate for governor, every candidate for the senate and for the house, is saying, “Hey! How can I get some of that Obama campaign tech mojo?”
Recorded on: July 29, 2009