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Welcome to the New Media Campaign Tools of 2012

The real secret of Obama's tech team—and what's next for online organizers.

| Fri Mar. 13, 2009 12:52 PM EDT

New Media Field Manager Judith Freeman acknowledges that the integration of the supporter database used by field organizers (VAN), the web campaigning tools (MyBO tools and email list powered by Blue State Digital), and the national voter file and associated demographic data (Catalist) brought important improvements. In addition to putting basic online volunteer and donor information directly into the hands of field organizers, integrating voterfile data with the national calling tool, "Neighbor to Neighbor" allowed online volunteers to make immediate contact with sets of voters. For more on how most of these systems connected, see Marc Ambinder's summary in the Atlantic.

This new set of rich, integrated data was important not just in the field but at the highest levels of the campaign. For the first time, state directors on up to the campaign manager himself had access to real-time dashboards of activity. At the Harvard Kennedy School's Campaign Managers Forum in December, David Plouffe described the information that he had at his fingertips like that of a Bloomberg terminal; data that usually would require a tedious series of phone calls and layers of trust was supplied by a single, efficient reporting system.

Most campaigns don't come anywhere close to running a NASA-like control room in the way that Plouffe describes. Since field organizers and volunteers reported the results of their canvassing activities up to several times per day using the online voter database, staff at the regional, state, or national level could view reports with real-time counts of voters contacted and their pledged levels of support. To help ensure the quality of voter data being reported, the campaign also tracked volunteering activity and "flake" rates in tandem to monitor the ebb and flow of volunteerism across the campaign.

The information needed on election day (total voters and total supporters showing up at the polls by certain times, for example) was different from every other day in the campaign, so the campaign invested in a computerized telephone reporting system. Scott Goodstein spearheaded the system that ultimately became known as "pollwatch" or "Project Houdini." TechPresident outlines several of the challenges that the system faced on election day when it was overloaded with volunteers trying to report numbers all at once (a scaling problem that Goodstein flagged in advance for campaign staffers who implemented the election day version).

This high-tech, high-touch philosophy was in evidence elsewhere: In Ohio, a volunteer from Georgia developed a tool that could track 'soft data' or qualitative information: General Election Director Jeremy Bird used it to generate a nightly aggregation of comments and thoughts from organizers across the state, which he received directly on his Blackberry. Regional field organizers would receive similar updates, letting them know how their volunteers were doing, how morale was, and what changes they recommended. In short, Bird had an efficient way to get unfiltered information from his entire staff without any bottlenecks from regional directors, and it reinforced accountability: Organizers knew their comments were being heard. (Bird or his staff followed up on any missing or worrisome updates).

Individually, each story here demonstrates an innovative use of technology to help meet a campaign need. But taken together, it becomes evident that the Obama campaign's use of technology stands in sharp contrast to how most campaign managers, executive directors, and CEOs approach technology. The path of least resistance for many leaders is still to pay and pray: Invest in staff and technology, create a firewall between their work and the rest of the organization, and then hope for a return on investment in the form of money or votes. In 2004, my former boss, Howard Dean's campaign manager Joe Trippi, seated the web team directly outside his office door and included us in nearly every campaign decision. The email open rates or meetup stats were given the same respect and attention as more traditional field or polling numbers. Plouffe appears to have achieved the equivalent in 2008.

In 2012, we can expect to see even more impressive integrations of tried and true organizing strategies with new technologies that we can't even imagine. As Trippi tells his students, when we evaluate campaigns now, we have to remember that YouTube didn't exist last cycle and Facebook was only a few college campuses. In 2012, millions more people will have access to broadband, and no one really knows how they will be spending their time online.

What we do know is that the fundamentals of organizing haven't changed. The next major challenge for a national political campaign will be to string together the various online vounteering tools into a program that does not rely as heavily on an army of paid field staff like Obama's to facilitate the "last mile" of physical-world organizing.

The next campaign managers must decide: Follow the online-offline hybrid model used by Obama in 2008, or use technology in new ways to scale grassroots and field organizing beyond what has yet been possible.

Michael Silberman is a founding partner of EchoDitto, an Internet strategy and technology firm that he started with other members of the internet team for Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign; the firm also built the new MotherJones.com.

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