More on Obama’s networked organizing strategy

October 14, 2008

As people begin to wonder how Obama has managed to separate from McCain so convincingly in the polls, a wave of coverage looking at the Obama campaign’s ground game has suggested some interesting lines of analysis.

Rockem-sockem politics... (photo by jaboobie cc-by-nc-nd)

Rockem-sockem politics... (photo by jaboobie cc-by-nc-nd)

I already wrote about Zach Exley’s breathless HuffPo piece in which he observes the distributed recruitment and mobilization happening through the campaign’s Neighborhood Teams.

Today, I started digging around in my RSS feeds and discovered that Ari Melber also took a close look at the Obama campaign’s “web-savvy” organizing at The Nation last week.

In addition, Gene Koo also pointed me towards a Sunday Washington Post story by Alec MacGillis that gathers expert/insider perspectives over the phone comparing the Obama and McCain approach (although the McCain coverage is really thin, it seems like he didn’t actually get quotes from anyone in the organization).

If you’re into this kind of thing, you should check them all out. Taken together, they provide a comprehensive portait of a GOTV machine the likes of which have not been seen for quite a while.

For the rest of you, here’s the executive summary: the conclusions are largely the same all around. Obama’s success is all about leveraging technologies and strong messaging to engage volunteers and put them to good use.

Here’s a good quote from MacGillis’s WaPo story that connects the dots:

“The basic concept is not a new or revolutionary one,” said Jon Carson, Obama’s national field director. “Campaigns have always wanted to have a grass-roots, volunteer-driven effort. The two pieces that came together for us . . . was the sheer volume of the people who wanted to get involved and the technology making it easier than ever before to find us. It wasn’t that Democrats didn’t get it” in past campaigns. “It was that . . . they weren’t able to make it work on this scale.”

And another that gets at the tension between what I’ve been thinking of as centralized and distributed organizing:

“You have to have really good message discipline so that the whole organization down to the local level is echoing the central message, which for us now is all about the economy,” said Jeff Blodgett, the Minnesota director. “It’s decentralized, but that there’s a control point around the message and around data and accountability.”

Melber, on the other hand, chips in some fascinating big-brotherish details on how the campaign manages their resources.

Mind-bending quote #1 (about how the campaign harvests and integrates data coming in from the web):

“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.

and, mind-bending quote #2 (about the use of volunteer text messaging and cell phones):

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.

I’ve been wondering whether and how the campaigns were responding to the explosion of cell phone use and the demographics of “cell only voters.” I now have a much better idea.

Melber goes on to discuss the campaign’s extensive GOTV efforts (and their nominally non-partisan under-the-radar voter registration website, VoteForChange) and then wraps up the piece with an interesting reflection on the long-term implications of this kind of campaign.

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.

Point taken, Ari, but that’s a llittle high-flown for my taste. While I’m hardly in a position to cast doubt on such a radical alternative political future, there’s good reason to believe that the Obama campaign’s (hypothetical) extraordinary success with first-time voters is going to be much harder to reproduce than it’s Internet and cell-phone based organizing tactics. While deeply connected with Obama’s brand and message at the moment, such digitally-enhanced practices will translate seamlessly into new and ideologically opposed contexts.

That said, there’s also no guarantee that Republicans will embrace the same organizing technologies as the resurgent Dems. Along these lines it’s interesting to note that I have yet to come across a single example of a Democratic campaign using Rovian direct-mail techniques with great success. That’s not to say there aren’t any such examples, but the fact that I’ve been paying attention to this stuff and never seen them is illustrative.

In the event of an Obama victory, we will only hear more about the campaign’s remarkable efforts. There will also be a lot of hand-wringing on the right as to where things went wrong and how best to blaze the trail back from the political wilderness. For the next few weeks, however, it’s still an open contest.

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