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Seeking the Technology Edge

By Edward Cone  |  Posted 10-22-2008 Print

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.


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