Obama’s Web-Savvy Voter Plan

Obama’s Web-Savvy Voter Plan

The Obama campaign’s below-the-radar use of the web to register new voters could change the game for Democrats and Republicans.



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.

Step one is working. Democratic registration has spiked by seven points in North Carolina since March–the GOP’s is up only a point–and the Obama campaign says it has registered 160,000 new voters. It has forty-five field offices sending volunteers to find new voters; a parallel hunt continues online.

Obama’s Internet success is well known, of course, since he has bested his rivals in both parties on everything from political traffic to YouTube views to MySpace friends. The campaign’s use of the web for recruiting new voters, however, is largely below the radar. That’s fine with Obama’s aides, who think the quiet, steady growth of the list of new registrants will catch some Republicans off guard. One example is McCain’s abrupt choice to cede Michigan, which he announced on the very day that new voters packed an 18,000-person Obama rally at Michigan State. Obama’s press shop has done very little to promote its signature registration effort online–the innovative portal VoteForChange. (The campaign required my interviews with its Internet staff to be mostly on background.) VoteForChange has received scant print coverage, but it’s a viral hit. Although the site is an Obama operation, it decouples registration from the Hopemonger. The spare bilingual homepage looks more like a search engine, soliciting information and helping visitors register, request absentee ballots or find polling locations.

The campaign can keep the effort discreet because it has a network to route around the press. Organizers spread the word using supporter e-mails, targeted Facebook ads–and an irreverent spoof video. The edgy clip spliced footage of Tom Brokaw imagining a McCain victory and directed terrified viewers to VoteForChange. It was an instant sensation, rocketing past celebrities as the most viewed item on YouTube. Within days NBC filed a copyright claim and the clip was pulled, but the new site had already bested the average traffic for Senate.gov. Meanwhile, in some states spikes in registration reveal a civic excitement broader than any single campaign can create. In Ohio a record-breaking 94 percent of eligible citizens have now registered.

It’s easy to forget, but during the primary season Obama trailed in most polls before the Iowa caucuses. Credit the man for using personal appeal and the politics of hope to stay afloat, but credit his campaign’s sophisticated Internet program for making even that possible. Without the web, they wouldn’t have had the money to compete or the network to organize support beyond the party apparatus. Those feats, however, have blue borders. Obama has only altered Democratic politics so far.

If his strategy succeeds, all presidential politics could change. First-time voters–both this generation of the young, black or marginalized as well as future rookie cohorts–might become a constituency that candidates pursue. The long shot, if Obama wins big, is a larger electoral universe that forces Republicans to play catch-up. The party that spent decades stifling voter turnout, from illegal suppression to court-sanctioned ploys like ID requirements, could find electoral salvation depends on the ability to register its own new voters. Couple that grassroots pressure with an economic crisis stoking intense bipartisan populism, and a “new politics” might really be on the horizon.

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