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Local Area People Networks

By Edward Cone  |  Posted 10-22-2008 Print

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.


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