Tech: Election Game Changer

By Edward Cone  |  Posted 10-22-2008

Tech: Election Game Changer

If the presidential election is decided by a narrow margin, folks like Michael Adamson could make all the difference, with a little high-tech help.

A stock trader who lives on a farm outside the small town of Madison, N.C., Adamson is a volunteer for the Barack Obama campaign. He leads a team of about 15 local volunteers in Rockingham County, a largely rural area with a population of slightly more than 90,000 people. Adamson's group is responsible for five precincts, home to about 6,000 registered voters.

Other teams, all supported by just one paid staffer, are active across Rockingham, which went decisively for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004. Similar operations are in place across North Carolina--a state that Democratic presidential candidates have not seriously contested in years--and in other states around the country.

Together, these numerous small organizations give the Obama campaign an army of volunteers, all coordinated via a campaign Web site called My.BarackObama.com that ties into extensive data-bases of potential voters. The technology is crucial to the work the volunteers are doing.

"If you don't have the right tools, you can't get the job done," says Adamson, who volunteered on numerous state and local races, along with two other presidential campaigns. "This is the best-organized campaign I've seen in terms of the ground game."

And the ground game--getting people registered to vote, getting them energized and getting them to turn out to vote--could be decisive in a close race. "The strongest organization on the ground can make up two or three points," says Joe Trippi, veteran Democratic strategist and CBS News analyst who helped architect the Howard Dean campaign's groundbreaking Internet strategy. "It can't make up for all the other factors that can come into play, but if it's near a dead heat going into Election Day, the superior ground operation will win."

In this aspect of the presidential race, Obama's tech-savvy campaign may have an advantage over John McCain's. "This will be the biggest get-out-the-vote operation in the history of America," Trippi says.

Seeking the Technology Edge

Seeking the Technology Edge

The Republican's answer to the My.BarackObama.com Web site, known as McCainSpace, did not go live until August, and the McCain campaign is generally seen as lagging on the technology and organizational fronts. Obama also is aided by a new group, America Votes, which is helping to coordinate the big-money organizing efforts of major unions and other supportive organizations. Information from an enormous national database of all voting-age individuals, maintained by a company called Catalist, will be critical to this effort.

But McCain isn't going into the fight unarmed. The 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign enjoyed great success using tools like e-mail, along with powerful microtargeting software that facilitated contacts with carefully chosen potential voters. Cyrus Krohn, director of the eCampaign division of the Republican National Committee, says that targeting strategy has been expanded to the Web, with banner ads and search marketing placed to reach the right people.

Early results have been promising. For example, in the Louisiana gubernatorial race won by Republican Bobby Jindal last year, turnout among people who responded to online material with actions such as registering or committing to vote was 76 percent, versus a statewide turnout of 47 percent. "That's a high click-to-conversion ratio," Krohn says.

Patrick Ruffini, a former online strategist for the Republican National Committee and Web master of the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign, says the McCain campaign has used e-mail well to do things such as alerting people in swing states to local appearances. He believes that relatively low-tech tools like e-mail lists remain powerful and important to the race. And the GOP has a large volunteer pool of its own, with the ability to draw big numbers through groups such as the College Republicans and local party organizations.

Even so, the sense is that the Democrats have leapfrogged their rivals in terms of putting voter data to use in the field. "Republicans have been at this for a while, so it's a real credit to the Democrats that they've caught up," Ruffini says. As Karl Rove, former White House advisor and a Fox News pundit, wrote in The Wall Street Journal this summer, "Technology has opened even more possibilities for Mr. Obama today."

The differences in the two campaigns start with the candidates themselves--not just McCain's much-discussed lack of computer skills--but Obama's interest in organizing, which staffers credit with inspiring the people-powered feel of the operation. Krohn says the Republican approach is more controlled and carefully monitored. "It's the difference between open and closed source," he says.

We've heard for years that the "first Internet campaign" was upon us. Whatever that title means, 2008 looks like the first campaign in which modern technology is deeply integrated into every phase of a presidential campaign organization--not as an add-on or afterthought, not siloed away from the main-stream, but as a defining element of the operation.

Campaign technologies that facilitate fundraising, viral and mass-media messaging, and some degree of organizing were proven commodities going into the race, and all have continued to mature during this political season. But just a year ago, the readiness and utility of some tools that may prove critical in November's election remained open questions.

The basic plumbing and wiring needed to inter-connect campaign Web sites to state and national party databases were unfinished. Mobile devices, which have played important roles in politics from South Korea to Spain, had yet to be integrated into a major U.S. campaign. And the impact of social networks on strategy and execution was an unknown.

Now all these elements are in play. The Obama campaign garnered a reported 2.9 million text-message addresses in the run-up to its announcement of vice presidential candidate Joe Biden, and both parties will use messaging to get out the vote on Election Day. (See "Going Mobile," at right.)

Volunteers like North Carolina's Adamson and his team, empowered by databases accessed and updated via the Web, are working on the nuts-and-bolts of electioneering. Whether Obama wins or loses, his Internet-enabled campaign will be the model for the future. That's a good thing, says Democratic strategist Trippi, for reasons beyond partisan politics. "Participation is the lifeblood of democracy," he says.

Local Area People Networks

Local Area People Networks

Campaigns prize word-of-mouth marketing for the same reason companies do: People respond to their neighbors, with whom they presumably share tastes and values. "Voter talking to voter, neighbor to neigh-bor, that's the most valuable contact you can have," says Ruffini, the former Republican online strategist.

And these days, grassroots outreach may be more important than ever, says Jerry Meek, chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party. Older techniques of contacting voters are diminishing in effectiveness. Many young people don't have land-line telephones, for example, and technologies like TiVo, iPods and satellite radio make it easy to miss broadcast advertisements. Even direct mail seems less effective as more people pay bills and communicate online. "Targeting people through their neighbors is a way of getting around these new obstacles," Meek says.

But training large numbers of volunteers--and arming them with up-to-date information--is a daunting job. That's what makes a Web site like My.BarackObama.com so valuable: It makes targeted information available at a mass scale, providing field workers with names, contact coordinates and voting histories. "We want to combine technology and grassroots organizing, so technology strengthens the grassroots," says Meek, who recently rolled out a similar site, called Constructing Victory, for North Carolina Democrats.

The Obama campaign has a CTO, Michael Slaby, and a Web team that includes Dean campaign veteran Joe Rospars as new media director and Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, who helps coordinate online organizing. The system works like a pyramid: State officials have access to a lot of functionality, and the people below them--down to the volunteer level--are given fewer and fewer functions, depending on what they need and how well they are known and trusted.

The Obama system learns as it goes along, letting volunteers feed information gleaned from their work into the database via their Web browsers. Campaign staffers at the local, state and national levels can see which volunteers do the most work and get the best results, making the organization more efficient over time. Nationwide, My.BarackObama.com has more than 1 million individual user accounts and has been used to promote more than 75,000 campaign events.

In Rockingham County, Adamson's group began by recruiting additional volunteers by phone, using lists available through the Obama and North Carolina Democratic Party Web sites. Working from their homes, making local calls on their phones via information pulled from the virtual phone bank and entering data into the system, they built a team to canvass the five precincts. Each precinct was divided into smaller areas, known as turfs, with about 500 voters apiece, assigned by the campaign. More volunteers were signing up as this article was being reported in mid-September.

The first big job Adamson's team undertook was voter registration. The system generated turf packets--including maps and the locations of houses with unregistered voters--that team members could pull from the Web site. The team then visits targeted homes identified by the campaign's database.

As of late September, 3,465 new voters had registered in Rockingham County, including 1,575 Demo-crats, 922 Republicans and 965 unaffiliated voters, according to Elections Director Janet Odell. In a county that is about 19 percent African-American, about 27.6 percent of the newly registered voters are black.

Adamson has personally registered 50 new voters and expects to register 50 more by the Oct. 10 deadline. "People ask me where I live, and it turns out I'm one of their neighbors," Adamson says. "I can tell them how to get to the Wal-Mart in Mayodan [a nearby town] to register. People assume that big campaigns happen somewhere else, but I'm right here. And the same thing is being done on a massive basis in other places across the country."

After registration is completed, the team will turn its attention to a get-out-the-vote effort. Using the site's Neighbor-to-Neighbor tool--a browser application that is the latest iteration of organizational software offered by the campaign--volunteers know who to call and the right doors on which to knock. Local people can walk a neighborhood independent of the local campaign office, and they don't need help to print out turf packets.

Team members will remind their neighbors to head to the polls as soon as North Carolina's early-voting period begins on Oct. 16. (As many as one-third of all ballots nationwide are expected to be cast early.) The volunteers will hand out maps of early voting stations, offer voters rides to their polling places and check back in with their contacts who have not yet voted right through Election Day on Nov. 4.

Connecting the Campaign

Connecting the Campaign

Volunteers who interact with the Obama campaign through a Web browser may never know it, but the system that drives their efforts is the product of a development and integration project that was far from complete as the 2008 campaign began. The heart of the network is housed in a Boston-area data center, where scores of workstations run voter-file databases and related software. The facility has multiple connections to Internet backbones to ensure maximum uptime.

The voter files come from state Democratic parties and the Democratic National Committee. Previous campaigns were hampered by a lack of easy access to these files, and as recently as the 2006 elections, vital information was still stored in numerous independent, siloed databases. "For this cycle, the DNC was focused on integration and efficiencies," says Jim St. George, a principal at Voter Activation Network, or VAN, the company that handled the back-end integration job.

The VAN system has been in the making for seven years. It runs on commercially available database software and is descended from a project begun in 2001 for Iowa Senator Tom Harkin. One of VAN's big jobs was engineering the databases so that campaigns could slice and dice the lists with great efficiency.

"It sounds easy, like something you could do with Microsoft Access," St. George says. "But if you have 12 million names and you want to find 30,000 women in a particular age group who voted in two elections but not a third one, it's going to take a long time."

As volunteers and staffers in the field enter information into the system about their interactions with potential voters, staffers at local, state and national campaign headquarters can see what's happening on the ground and make adjustments on the fly. They might decide to send out a mailer to wavering voters, for example.

"All the data feeds into the same database and gets better as you go along," St. George says. But the set-up isn't intended to create top-down management. He says a key difference between the Obama network and the successful 2004 Bush/Cheney microtargeting and e-mail strategy is mass collaboration.

Granting significant local authority on campaign activities to young staffers and volunteers means mistakes can happen, but the idea is that overall decision making should be better than it would be with centrally planned activities. While unwilling to provide specifics, St. George promises that additional turnout-maximization features will be in place on Election Day.

VAN's partner on the big integration project was another Boston-area company, Blue State Digital, which was founded by veterans of the Dean campaign. Blue State built the front end of the system, connecting the ground operations with the VAN databases.

"This thing is huge," says Jascha Franklin-Hodge, a partner at Blue State. Virtual phone-banking tools built by Blue State allowed Obama volunteers and staff to make more than 2 million calls to likely voters during the primary season, and that was done with an older generation of the phone-list tools. Volunteers "can spend half an hour on the phone after work," Franklin Hodge says. "It allows a campaign to have direct voter-to-voter contact at Internet scale."

Part of the power of My.BarackObama.com is that it capitalizes on the success of popular social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace. While Krohn says the RNC also has enjoyed success in using these established sites to activate motivated volunteers, the Obama site does things the Republicans can't do.

"Facebook was the gateway," says Democratic strategist Trippi. Adds Blue State's Franklin-Hodge, "Facebook is great for broadcasting yourself to friends, but it's not very action-oriented. There are few features at My.BarackObama.com for broadcasting yourself. Instead, it's geared to getting people to take action."

In essence, the Obama site redirects the energy of social networkers to specific, campaign-oriented tasks, such as canvassing neighborhoods. Ruffini, Web master of the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign, agrees that the system has "morphed into a very useful tool." A killer application, he says, is the group-building feature, which allows people to create connections to potential voters in their area, rather than just talking about their personal views of the campaign as they might on Facebook.

Of course, user excitement still matters. As Obama volunteer Adamson says, "The technology wouldn't do any good if you didn't have people enthusiastic enough to use it."

Going Mobile

Going Mobile

Text messaging via mobile phones could be an important element of the Obama campaign's ground game, provided the technology works at crunch time. Texting and cell phone calls are critical as an increasing number of people eschew landlines in favor of mobile devices, a trend that is especially popular among key Obama constituencies, including young voters, African-Americans and Hispanics.

"Texting is more of a person-to-person contact than e-mails or social networking," says Kerra Bolton, the communica-tions director of the North Carolina Democratic Party, which has its own texting program.

Cell phones have proved effective at mobilizing voters in other countries, but they had been missing in action in U.S. elections. That changed this summer, when Obama promised to announce his vice presidential pick to anyone who registered with the campaign. The announcement of Joe Biden was scooped by the media, but the campaign got what it was after: copious contact information, including a reported 2.9 million text addresses. That could make a big difference when it comes time to get out the vote.

The problem is that a lot of people didn't get their VP text message in a timely way, or at all. While the viral nature of text messages--which can be forwarded easily--means that a text campaign can succeed even if the original broadcast fails to reach every recipient, missing key volunteers could hamper the effectiveness of the effort.

Mass-distributed texts exchanged via shortcodes--those nifty little addresses that marketers use instead of full phone numbers--work differently from the person-to-person texts you send to your kids, says Shlomi Gian, director of mobile business development for Keynote Systems, a testing and measurement company. Keynote found weaknesses in the Obama campaign's mobile network when it ran independent tests of the service.

In shortcode texting, firms that provide applications work with other companies known as aggregators. SinglePoint, the aggregator used for the Biden announcement, did not comment in time for our deadline.

Alykhan Govani, who is North American CEO for another large aggregator, MX Telecom, says mass-texting on election day is very feasible. "It's about planning and infra-structure being done cor-rectly," Govani says. "Three million is a large number, but we have clients who are doing blasts that size all the time."

Another potentially powerful technology is micro-messaging, as provided by the popular Twitter service or perhaps its newer competitor, Yammer. Republican tech strategist Patrick Ruffini says intelligence broadcast via such services could be valuable on Election Day in terms of modeling turnout and reporting problems at polling stations. Of course, Twitter has had its own share of operational problems at scale.

What is clear is that new technologies continue to change politics. Popular culture often leads the way, making people comfortable with tools that campaigns later adopt.

"Howard Dean was helped by people having used their credit cards on eBay or Amazon. That had to happen first," says Democratic strategist Joe Trippi. "With text, it was American Idol. Millions of people have voted for their favorites on television, so they're not shy about using the same technology in a real election."

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