Before Barack Obama spoke to a September rally at the University of Nevada, 21-year-old Carmen Gilbert took the stage to address her classmates, who spilled across the quad in a capacity crowd of 12,000 people. She was all business. “Take out your cellphones,” said Gilbert, as she ordered the throng of rookie voters to text Obama’s headquarters on the spot. With the punch of two buttons–a message reading NV–vital organizing intelligence poured into the campaign.
Obama’s aides treasure data and contact information for voters in swing states, and text messages provide both. First, the campaign learns when and where a person joined up. So a student with a New York cellphone, who would otherwise be relegated to fundraising appeals, is reclassified for Nevada mobilization. Then, organizers directly reach them with text messages and calls. The campaign also asks supporters to forward text messages and grow the network.
“Every night there’s a data sync on who is new and who is a longtime MyBO [Obama social network] user who started making calls,” says Joe Rospars, Obama’s new-media director, explaining how the campaign integrates virtual actions with organizing on the ground. A swing-state supporter who signs up online will swiftly receive calls from local staff and targeted e-mails. “Fifty percent of our e-mail is on state-specific items, like volunteer recruitment,” Rospars told me one Sunday night in September, at a Chicago bar a few blocks from Obama headquarters. Each time a supporter interacts with the campaign, Rospars says, data specialists “create new layers” for targeting that person by region, engagement and volunteer preferences.
Campaign messages range from reminders about watching presidential debates to registration deadlines. The communication, however, is not confined to top-down missives from Chicago. On September 28 the campaign launched a turnout application on the popular iPhone. In a break with typical voter contact models, it empowers users to call their personalized list of voters. It sorts friends’ phone numbers by “key battleground states” to focus on the people with potentially decisive votes.
Tapping personal networks can also unearth people who are not on the grid for conventional outreach. Scott Goodstein, the guru behind ObamaMobile, the campaign’s cell outreach, anticipates the program “will generate thousands of additional personal contacts.” Within a week of its launch, the tool broke into the Top Ten free downloads on iTunes. It bested iGolf, another new release, but is still trailing Lightsaber Unleashed as we go to press.
Reaching new people is futile, of course, if they aren’t registered to vote. The Obama campaign has united web and field recruitment to wage one of the largest voter registration drives of a modern campaign. It’s the first time since Jesse Jackson’s 1980s bids that a candidate has staked success on mobilizing new voters. Obama’s October schedule is studded with evidence of this audacious strategy; he’s spending precious time in recently bright-red states like North Carolina, where he spoke to a 28,000-person rally on October 5. But he can’t win the state within its 2004 universe of registered voters: they re-elected Bush by a whopping 12.5-point margin, about 436,000 votes. Obama needs new registrants just to narrow that gap–and he must still win back conservative swing voters.