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Obama’s Secret Weapons: Internet, Databases and Psychology
By Sarah Lai Stirland
Jeanette Scanlon lobbies for Barack Obama in Plant City, Florida, a conservative town whose inhabitants voted for President Bush in the last two elections.
During a sweltering Friday evening rush hour in early October, Jeanette Scanlon spent two-and-a-half hours with 20 other people waving a homemade Barack Obama sign at the cars flowing through a busy intersection in Plant City, Florida.
"I got shot the bird one time," laughs the easy-natured Scanlon, a 43-year-old single mother of three and a Tampa psychiatrist’s billing manager. "That wasn’t the thumbs up I was looking for."
Some rush-hour commuters didn’t take to the sign-waving.
Scanlon is one of an estimated 230,000 volunteers who are powering Obama’s get-out-the-vote campaign in the swing state of Florida. And while sign-waving is a decidedly low-tech appeal to voters’ hearts and minds, make no mistake: The Obama campaign’s technology is represented here. Scanlon organized the gathering — and 24 others since September — through Obama’s social networking site, my.BarackObama.com. Similarly, she used the site’s Neighbor-to-Neighbor tool in September to find registered voters in her own neighborhood, so she could canvass them for Obama. And this weekend, Scanlon and another 75 or so Plant City volunteers will be phoning thousands of Floridians to urge them to vote, using a sophisticated database provided by the Obama campaign to ensure they don’t call McCain supporters by mistake.
The Obama campaign has been building, tweaking and tinkering with its technology and organizational infrastructure since it kicked off in February 2007, and today has most sophisticated organizing apparatus of any presidential campaign in history. Previous political campaigns have tapped the internet in innovative ways — Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential run, and Ron Paul’s bid for this year’s Republican nomination, to name two. But Obama is the first to successfully integrate technology with a revamped model of political organization that stresses volunteer participation and feedback on a massive scale, erecting a vast, intricate machine set to fuel an unprecedented get-out-the-vote drive in the final days before Tuesday’s election.
"I think what was recovered in this campaign is the sense of what leadership is, and what the role of the technology is, so that you get the best out of both," says Marshall Ganz, a public policy lecturer at Harvard who designed the field-organizer and volunteer training system used by the Obama campaign. "The Dean campaign understood how to use the internet for the fund-raising, but not for the organizing."
"We’ve really poured a lot of energy and thought into making this focused on real-world organizing activity," says Chris Hughes, the 24-year-old co-founder of Facebook, who left that company last year to help Obama with his online organizational efforts.
Florida’s 27 electoral votes make it a key state in the national election, and Obama has poured $27.5 million into television advertising in the Sunshine State, drowning out McCain’s relatively paltry $6.4 million in ads since late June. But equally important to the campaign is making sure its supporters actually vote — something that the Republican grassroots have historically been better at in Florida.
So the campaign swelled field operations to 19,000 "neighborhood teams" as of late October, focused on 1,400 neighborhoods across the state, according to a recent report from the St. Petersburg Times. The teams are directed by about 500 paid campaign field organizers, and are replicated nationally. In all, the Obama campaign estimates that 1.5 million volunteers are helping it to get out the vote in the battleground states.
These neighborhood teams have both phone-banked and physically knocked on doors to make sure that voters are registered and know where to vote — an effort that will continue all the way through Election Day.
"The last weekend before the election, they’re going to have constant phone-banking and canvassing, asking people whether they’ve voted yet, and if not, when they’re going to vote," says Scanlon, discussing plans laid out by four team leaders at a local Plant City campaign office.
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But the calling won’t be a completely random affair. The
Obama campaign will give volunteers access to databases that have been constantly updated throughout the summer through its field-office computers, and through myBo — Obama supporters’ nickname for myBarackObama.com — with information about potential voters’
political leanings. The information in the database has accumulated over time from previous election campaigns, and is constantly updated with information gathered at people’s doorsteps by canvassers like
Scanlon, and through phone calls.
Now, someone identified as a supporter is likely to be called again by the Obama campaign, and reminded where to go vote; people identified as "undecided" in the database may receive a call or a personal visit from a volunteer to find out how they can still be persuaded, or they may be mailed some information about Obama’s positions on the issues. McCain supporters, naturally, aren’t called by the Obama volunteers.
That blend of gumshoe canvassing and information processing is a hallmark of the Obama campaign, says Sanford Dickert, a social-media consultant in New York City.
"The integration of technology into the process of field organizing … is the success of the Obama campaign," says Dickert, who worked as John Kerry’s chief technology officer for the 2004 campaign.
"But the use technology was not the end-all and be-all in this cycle.
Technology has been a partner, an enabler for the Obama campaign, bringing the efficiencies of the internet into the real-world problems of organizing people in a distributed, trusted fashion."
An 80-plus page training manual provided to campaign field organizers illustrates the organizational side of the campaign. Members of leadership teams are assigned specific roles, such as team coordinator, data coordinator, volunteer coordinator, voter-registration and voter-contact coordinator, and house-meeting coordinator. Each of these positions has a clearly defined role outlined in bullet points. Those teams of people and their cadres of volunteers are ultimately assigned to get out the vote in specific geographic regions.
But the campaign also seems to recognize that some volunteers won’t cotton to a top-down system, and its web tools accommodate independent efforts. Scanlon started her work for Obama with the South
Tampa team, but felt the campaign wasn’t sending enough volunteers to canvas her hometown Plant City, a working-class suburb that voted for
Bush in the last two presidential elections. Obama’s organizers insisted that that they needed to focus their efforts on more densely populated surrounding areas.
"I just didn’t feel good about that," she says.
So Scanlon took matters in her own hands by tapping into the campaign’s online Neighbor-to-Neighbor tool on myBo. In two days last September, she knocked on 50 doors to sniff out support for Obama, entering her neighbors’ responses into the campaign’s databases through myBo.
Though she’s volunteered on presidential campaigns before, it was the first time that she had ever made the effort to canvass for a presidential candidate by visiting neighbors’ houses.
Scanlon says that many of the voters she talked to worried about Obama’s tax plans. But she had gone on her canvassing trip prepared with printouts from the Obama campaign’s web site which provided a side-by-side comparison between Obama’s and John McCain’s tax proposals for families. "The plan was better for 100 percent of the voters I spoke to in Plant City," she says.
Scanlon logs her activities on myBo, which awards points for various volunteer activities. The point system helps other would-be supporters figure out who they can hook up with locally if they want to get more involved in the campaign, says Hughes.
"If you go to your local group in your small town, you can immediately find out who’s the most active person, and who just joined the group for the sake of joining the group," Hughes says. "And that gives you, the individual Obama supporter, much more information. You can measure your own activity against others, and you can contact the most active people within the groups."
Model Adopted From Harvard Research
The controlled chaos of Obama’s ground game owes a debt to the civil rights and farmworkers’ movements of the past, as well as lessons from the 2004 campaigns, and an organizational-team theory developed by Ganz and colleague Ruth Wageman, a psychology professor at Harvard, in a recent project for the Sierra Club.
In 2003, the Sierra Club realized that its local grassroots volunteer programs weren’t effective. In late 2005, it commissioned the Harvard scholars to undertake a two-year research project to figure out why, and how to fix it. The researchers discovered that the kind of volunteers that the Sierra Club attracted were "lone ranger" types who focused on accomplishing goals on their own, rather than effectively working with others with "shared purpose."
The danger of this approach, Ganz says, is that individuals burn out easily. They try to do everything themselves rather than breaking the goals out into specific tasks that members of interdependent teams can accomplish in pieces. That’s why relationships are so important, they found. Ganz and Wageman’s model gets members of teams to find out more about one another’s experiences, and draw on each member’s expertise. The model also uses personal storytelling during workshops as a way to motivate peers and potential recruits to action.
Ganz says that his and Wageman’s training system works well for the Obama campaign, because it’s designed to channel the enthusiasm of voters who are emotionally inspired by orators such as Obama. This appeal to the right brain contrasts with most of the recent Democratic political campaigns, which have appealed to voters’ logic by selling concepts and policies.
Obama organizers, and some volunteers, enter the campaign machine through weekend training sessions called "Camp Obama."