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."