Christopher Hass is digital director for Gov. Pat Quinn's re-election campaign. | Al Podgorski / Sun-Times Media
Dingy yet digital setting: Quinn counts on tech whiz for votes
Above the Blue Frog karaoke bar, inside of a nondescript, even decrepit-looking building, is the unlikely nerve center of Gov. Pat Quinn’s re-election campaign.
Dingy offices inside 676 N. La Salle are filled with tapping keyboards, ringing phones, packed file cabinets — and musings about asbestos.
On a recent day, the window frame behind chief political strategist Bill Hyers is covered in some foreign substance that’s apparently been the butt of a joke or two over the last week.
Inside this bustling nook is where Quinn first set up shop 25 years ago. Pictures on the wall show the Democrat when he had a fuller head of hair — and it was dark.
It’s in this space where the Democratic governor’s hopes for re-election lie, and despite the age of its surroundings, they very much rely on a forward-thinking man the public never sees: Christopher Hass, digital director for the Quinn campaign.
Taking a page from President Barack Obama’s digital triumph in 2012, Hass, 38, who has proven to be a digital whiz with political data, is working to duplicate that tech-driven success in Illinois.
“He’s on the forefront of this whole industry,” Brooke Anderson, Quinn’s communications chief, said. “I think he has revolutionized the way the governor’s campaign is being executed this year.”
Hass joined Quinn after spending seven years helping break new ground inside of Obama’s re-election efforts. He then moved to Obama’s Organizing For Action. He’s predicting success again in Illinois for Democrats, pointing to the network of Obama tech gurus who stayed in Chicago after 2012, many going to the tech hub 1871 at the Merchandise Mart.
In 2012, Obama’s campaign was widely lauded for taking its 2008 field operation that was already considered state of the art and stepping it up, accounting for various changes in technology and social media. While the nation wondered which states would go red or blue, Obama’s campaign operation knew exactly which voters it had to get to the polls, down to their plus-four ZIP code.
Hass was in the middle of the evolution, from the beginning. The Indiana native was in Springfield when Obama, as a U.S. senator from Illinois, made his historic presidential announcement from the old state capitol. Hass, who began computer programming at a young age, then majored in journalism, drove to Chicago and was one of the first people waiting in line to volunteer for Obama’s first presidential run.
With Hass and other members of the Obama 2008 and 2012 teams aboard, Quinn is counting on the digital aspect of the campaign to turn out big numbers in November as he tries to beat Republican Bruce Rauner.
“It is certainly one of the largest, if not the largest in-house digital teams for a statewide race right now,” Hass told the Chicago Sun-Times.
His team, made up of nine people, is not off in a corner or in a different room. It works hand in hand with the campaign’s communication team, working to get its message out, including highlighting the news of the day.
The team also jumps on issues that are gaining traction in the race, which recently have focused on demands for Rauner to release tax returns, Cayman Islands investments and other business practices.
“The advantage is we have a team in-house that understands it, so we can work with some of these vendors to place targeted ads,” he says. “I think the idea of having an in-house team is key to that.”
Of course, the Quinn operation knows what it’s up against.
Rauner, a multimillionaire, has spent some $21 million on his campaign operation since his 2013 launch, much of it toward an effective TV ad campaign that’s driven up the newcomer’s name recognition and driven down Quinn’s numbers. However, Rauner also has robust opposition research, digital and data teams, and he’s attempting to make inroads in typically Democrat-held areas of the state.
“I think it’s clear that they are making an investment in [the digital] area, no doubt about it,” Hass said. “We know one of the challenges in this campaign is that we are running against a billionaire who has access to virtually unlimited funds in the context of a race like this. They’ve placed some very large buys. We try to be focused on being targeted with how we spend that money.”
Hass points to the number of Rauner ads online, driven by cookies that follow people on the Web who may have visited a Rauner site.
From Hass’ point of view, it’s a wasteful tactic.
“Me personally, I’ve been inundated with Bruce Rauner ads for at least about a month now. I suspect if they keep up that pace they’ll end up spending hundreds of dollars advertising to me between now and Election Day,” Hass said. The problem with that: “I’m not one of their voters.”
Hass said the Quinn camp’s approach is more targeted. For instance, early on, the campaign connected with people who supported an increase to the minimum wage. After identifying those people, they recruited volunteers, and worked to expand their field campaign or social media presence. He also has learned it’s up to the campaign to educate voters who are looking up information on a candidate online.
“People use the Internet to learn in a way they don’t use television to learn,” Hass said. “That’s a really great space to do a communication with someone and provide them with more information than you could in a television ad, for instance.”
Hass said the digital operation entails more than online ads, videos and social media. The digital team is tied into building the Quinn field team, tracking which messages are reaching voters, recruiting volunteers, moving news stories online and educating voters on Quinn’s message.
“We work very closely with the communication team to amplify their message and work closely with the field team. We do a lot of recruitment for them,” Hass says. Afterall, new volunteers today don’t first encounter the campaign by walking into the dingy digs of 676 N. La Salle. The first interaction is online.
As early voting begins, the digital team works with tracking who has voted.
“We are able to see within our universe of people who support us, how many have voted. Then you start to narrow that down as you go. I think that’s one of the areas that digital can be a huge force,” Hass says. “As we look at our lists and say, “OK, these are the people who haven’t voted, these are the people we need to focus our attention on.”
Then supporters are asked to apply social pressure on friends, neighbors or family members.
“You may not listen to me but you may listen to your mom. So if your mom is a Quinn supporter, [she] may say: ‘Gotta get those kids out to the early vote location,’ ” Hass says. “What we found in 2012, there were some people we just couldn’t reach on the phone. We found that social media and through the Internet was perhaps the only way we could ever reach them.”
With all the focus on technology, Hass said there’s something that was often overlooked in the Obama campaign.
“It was the extent that the Obama campaign invested in people and not just technology,” he said. “We understood that bringing in good people that are dedicated to the cause is going to pay out huge dividends. I think you’re seeing that again here.”