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How the Obama Campaign's New iPhone App Really Works | The Nation

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Ari Melber

Ari Melber

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How the Obama Campaign's New iPhone App Really Works

The Obama campaign launched a new app on Tuesday, an ambitious effort to bring the tools of a local field office to iPhones across the country.

The app marks one of those potentially bland campaign developments that—unlike the weekly gaffes that draw so much media attention—could actually move a lot of votes in November. Obama’s app is unusual because it melds technology and field organizing more than any other political campaign, including Obama’s earlier efforts.

This is the first time that voter canvassing lists have been provided to volunteers through an app, another step in the campaign’s attempt to deputize volunteers with responsibilities traditionally reserved to political staff. (These include the “super volunteers” that Obama field guru Jon Carson credits for unprecedented turnout operations in Ohio last cycle.) Now volunteers can not only download local field resources, they can upload their results in real time, to track whether a voter backs Romney or report the phone number of a resident who registered to vote for the first time. Those data enter Obama’s virtual field database, called “Dashboard,” and are synced with the campaign’s programs for voter persuasion and turnout.

Imagine a volunteer knocking on a door. Now, instead of taking notes on a clipboard, delivering them to a field office and waiting for a staffer to enter the data, the volunteer simply punches results into an iPhone. Pressing the digit “3” indicates that a voter is undecided, for example, while a “2” conveys that the person is leaning towards Obama. And nabbing a “1” means the volunteer found a fellow strong supporter. (The number system tracks the usual scale that field campaigns used before the web—the origin of the saying that good organizers turn “twos to ones.”) Or, after a more detailed chat, a volunteer can upload extra notes that the campaign might use to tailor its persuasion or mobilization efforts to that individual. A “3” might receive persuasion arguments about the president’s tax cuts, while a “1” usually gets a mobilization message—the location of polling places, perhaps, or reminders about voter ID requirements.

If that sounds like a bunch of work, that’s because the app was not designed to be entertaining. “This app isn’t about being flashy,” emphasizes Teddy Goff, the campaign’s digital director. “It’s about giving you the tools you need to make the biggest possible difference between now and Election Day.”

The fusion of field targeting and decentralized volunteering online is on display in Ohio, a crucial battleground state. Volunteers can log on to Dashboard and use a phone call program that pinpoints residents who opposed restrictions on collective bargaining rights for unions.

“Last year Governor Kasich waged an attack on our Ohio teachers, firefighters and police officers,” reads the official script. “You signed the petition against Issue 2,” the script notes, and for respondents who are undecided, it suggests saying, “It’s time to say no to Mitt Romney’s anti-worker agenda.” Exclamation points are optional. But if a given volunteer doesn’t feel like slamming Mitt, they can choose from a dropdown of several different targeting programs. The labor message is from a plan called “No On Mitt,” while people who prefer friendlier terrain can choose the list of “Environmentalists for Obama.”

All this technology is a breakthrough, but of course, the big question is whether enough people will use it.

I asked Obama campaign officials in Chicago, who reiterated a policy of withholding participation rates during the election. But there are hints in the public data.

Last cycle, more than 1 million people used Obama’s text message program, which looks rudimentary compared to the new app. Another 13 million signed up for e-mail, the largest campaign e-mail list in American history, and a key to the campaign’s fundraising success. This cycle, visitors to BarackObama.com have surged since Republicans settled on a nominee—from about 3 million unique visitors in April to 4.7 million in June, according to rough estimates from Compete.com. (That’s three times the traffic for the White House website and five times Romney’s take in June.) So a core group of engaged supporters is still out there—a metric that differs from the enthusiasm decline among the broader Democratic electorate. (Enthusiasm has dropped about eighteen points since the same point four years ago, according to Gallup’s polling in July 2008 and 2012.)

Meanwhile, Romney’s campaign still lags behind in both its raw technology and online mobilization. His campaign app is not currently built for actually registering or turning out voters. In fact, “it serves largely as a photo-sharing tool that allows users to add pro-Romney phrases—like ‘I’m a mom for Mitt’—to a picture before posting it to Twitter or sharing it on Facebook,” as the New York Times’s Michael Shear reported.

Romney’s aides have not built an online army on par with Obama’s, and they seem to think they can win without one. That is not a far-fetched premise. After all, Obama is the only presidential candidate who ever scaled the Internet as a platform for recruiting both dollars and voters. He is betting that he can do that again, and pushing even more responsibility—and work—down through the campaign hierarchy and onto volunteer supporters. He needs them.

Update: On the web fundraising front, meanwhile, the Obama campaigned released a new video showing the president firing up a laptop to make an online donation to his own campaign. (“Employer: United States of America.”) The video has a full-throated pitch from the president, saying he “depends” on low-dollar donations of five and ten dollars.

Images courtesy of Obama and Romney campaigns.

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