Welcome to the New Media Campaign Tools of 2012

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

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We’d all been receiving text messages from the Obama campaign long before I hit the ground in Ohio. But it wasn’t until after a few days working alongside field organizers and their humming cell phones that I realized what was going on: Staff were receiving all kinds of messages that you and I were not. I watched organizers smile at and react to special SMS updates from the state and national headquarters, often designed to keep morale high or to relay timely insider information to key volunteers. For example, “we’ve already knocked on 40,000 doors today across the state—keep it up and we’ll reach 50,000 new voters by dark.”

Everything I thought we knew about the campaign’s use of technology and the Internet faded as I spent more time with the campaign. The game-changer in the Obama campaign, as I found in talking to key staff—and through volunteering in southern Ohio myself—was that technology was not an add-on: It represented a carefully considered element of almost every critical campaign function. Most remarkably, technology played a critical role in the one area least understood by the “digerati” and most online campaigners: moving online supporters toward real-world action.

The New Media team’s mantra and focus was “Message, Money, and Mobilization”—three critical campaign functions that their work served and supported. The Internet’s role in the first two—enabling a massively successful online word-of-mouth campaign and record-breaking fundraising totals—are both fairly well documented. Not so the third “M,” mobilization.

As Dean campaign vets like me learned in 2004, all the Internet buzz and fundraising and volunteerism in the world is moot if you can’t get enough people to the polls. The holy grail of online organizing is in its ability to inspire and facilitate real-world action.

Again, it’s tempting to think of Obama’s impressive field campaign and his online organizing programs as separate—the 2,500+ field organizers and volunteer neighborhood teams on one side, the online activists using MyBarackObama.com to set up discussion groups and events on the other. But much of the critical grassroots organizing actually happened at the intersection of the two. Perhaps the greatest example of this fusion is in how the web was used to recruit and funnel volunteers into traditional organizing and local activities.

“Neighborhood Team Leaders” (NTLs) represented the heart and soul of the field effort, and their work was brought to life by more than 2,500 well-trained field organizers. On Election Day, I met Sandy in rural Jackson, Ohio. She was a Neighborhood Team Leader running the entire get-out-the-vote operation from the Obama field office so that the campaign’s field organizer, Courtney, could support multiple locations like Sandy’s across several counties. Sandy had signed up on the campaign website many months earlier as one of the first people in her area to join the campaign. Shortly thereafter, she was invited to join an informational meeting with organizers like Courtney who had just arrived in nearby Athens. At this point, Sandy was trained and ultimately recruited for a leadership role after proving herself through a series of volunteer activities.

It became clear from almost every conversation I’ve had with campaign staffers that the online tools at My.BarackObama.com (MyBO) played a critical role in jumpstarting the field work. Activists on MyBO with a track record of activity or engagement in the campaign were invited to Camp Obama trainings, where they would learn the skills needed to organize their community. Staffers explained to Colin Delaney how the MyBO tools “let volunteers create the initial supporter networks which paid staff could then use once they arrived in the state. Online volunteer organizing essentially built the campaign a structure in places where it didn’t exist, letting paid staff parachute in and immediately take command of a working political army.” All this was managed through an enterprise-level database unprecedented for political campaigns.

The fact that field organizers were able to use the MyBO tools as a high-tech prospecting device represents a remarkable level of integration between the Internet and field campaigns. I spoke with organizers who used their own campaign’s website to identify individuals for their local efforts. These young organizers did what comes naturally to anyone who grew up surrounded by online social networking or online dating: They logged into the web-based phone-banking tools, found the online volunteers in their area who demonstrated a clear interest in calling voters, and then invited those volunteers into the local office for more rigorous canvassing and voter-contact work. (Zack Exley, who also spent time with the Obama campaign in Ohio, describes the organizing and volunteer leadership development models in detail in his HuffPo piece, “The New Organizers.”)

The recruitment funnel moving people from online to “offline” runs even deeper. The Voteforchange.com online voter registration site that the campaign launched in early September registered more than 700,000 voters, providing the campaign with yet another clear avenue for follow-up by local volunteer teams or field organizers.

Chris Hughes, the Facebook co-founder who directed the campaign’s online organizing work, offered some additional examples of how online activity via MyBO was directed into useful real-world voter contact or field work. More than 9 million calls made via the online phone-banking tools on MyBO and Neighbor to Neighbor allowed remote volunteers to help ‘clean’ the voter file before local teams ever made contact. By taking a first pass through the voter list, Internet volunteers could essentially verify voter data from their homes, culling bad data on voters who had moved or died and saving local volunteers time. (Watch the N2N video demo).

The groups organized via the online MyBO tools performed at least two additional real-world organizing functions, says Hughes: The 200,000 offline events—house parties, national days of action, or local independently organized events—organized by MyBO group leaders and volunteers served as recruitment vehicles into the campaign; event organizers faxed or emailed their signup sheets into the campaign after events and helped build that 13 million person list. In several battleground states, some MyBO groups were primed for more advanced field work. The campaign asked them to walk their neighborhoods and familiarize themselves with their local “turf,” in preparation for the canvassing work that they would soon be asked to do by field organizers.

A primary reason why Obama was able to include remote and distributed volunteer groups in its ground campaign was that it made inroads to solving the age-old problem of having multiple, silo’d databases. Perhaps the greatest investment that the Obama campaign made was having its various databases share data with one another. It may seem obvious that field organizers ought to be able to pull a list of online volunteer sign-ups, but this has been a challenge for campaigns forever.

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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Donations have started slow, and we hope that explaining, level-headedly, why your support really is everything for our reporting will make a difference. Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” or in this 2:28 video about our merger (that literally just won an award), and please pitch in if you can right now.

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