Learning from Obama’s Volunteer Army: How To Put People to Work on Your Behalf

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Part Four of a six-part series

Attracting the largest army of supporters ever seen in a modern American election is one thing, but even more impressive is that the Obama campaign managed to put them to work — as online recruiters, as cash machines, but also as organizers, block-walkers and pro-Obama voices in their own communities. A critical problem for anyone running for office: if all you ask volunteers to do when they show up at your campaign headquarters is to stuff envelopes, their ranks are likely to melt away like the morning dew as they find better uses for their time. The Obama solution: borrow their brains, and use technology to make it possible. In part, this was through the MyBarackObama.com toolset:

The MyBO Web site served as the hub for electoral activities, with spokes that reached to an array of platforms, all of which drove conversation back to the Web site in order to engage the people, empower the voices, raise the money and get the boots on the ground needed to win the election.

“The Social Pulpit: Barack Obama’s Social Media Toolkit,” Edelman Digital Public Affairs, January 2009

We’ve already looked at the campaign’s grassroots-organizing model, which required a tremendous investment in time from — and an immense amount of trust in — volunteer team members and their recruits, but the Obamans ventured out onto plenty of other ground on which political campaigns normally fear to tread. When volunteers were ready before professional staff arrived in a state, for instance, the campaign let the locals represent it in public, including to the news media — something that would send shivers down the spine of a traditional campaign staffer.

When outreach is based around volunteer commitment rather than on strict message control, training becomes particularly important, since volunteers will need to learn to do everything from planning events to motivating slackers. Obama’s staff held many in-person organizing sessions and bootcamps, but they could also depend on internet video to deliver lessons at any hour of the day. Plus, video helped disseminate messaging points and showed volunteers how their work fit into the broader context of the entire campaign. For Obama, trusting volunteers to communicate face-to-face with local voters, opinion leaders and the media was a natural extension of his community-organizing ethos — but it was online technology that made it work on a national scale.

Countering The Smears

Though well-armed and feisty, Obama’s supporters weren’t alone online, and his campaign was forced to spend more time and money countering narratives spread by critics than any of his staff would have liked. The Obama-is-a-Muslim-Manchurian-Candidate email chains took off just about anywhere the gullible had access to a “forward” button, and they flew in formation with other messages, blog posts and videos that accused Obama of everything from socialism to racism to a lack of “gratitude.” Once again, Obama’s volunteers helped come to the rescue, and once again by working within their own social circles:

The campaign also launched web pages and online action groups to fight the underground, e-mail whisper campaigns and robo-calls that surfaced in battleground states. In one effort, the campaign urged supporters to send out counterviral e-mails responding to false rumors about Obama’s personal background and tax policies.

“Propelled by Internet, Barack Obama Wins Presidency,” Sarah Lai Stirland, Wired.com, 11/4/2008

I.e., when your uncle sent that crazy anti-Obama email to you and 30 other people, you learned to politely reply-to-all with links to articles that countered the distortions. Multiply that by a few million activists, and the Obama campaign had access to a better antidote to backstage smears than any television commercial could provide.

Social Media Activism

The Obama model may have emphasized putting people to work in their physical communities, but why stop there — as we’ve seen, his supporters were going to spread the word in the virtual world as well as next door to home. And the campaign was happy to give them both the source material necessary and the channels to promote the results:

The MyBO Web site contained videos, speeches, photos and how-to guides that gave people the raw materials they needed to create their own compelling content in support of Obama. In return, supporters created more than 400,000 pro-Obama videos and posted them to YouTube. They also wrote more than 400,000 blog posts on the MyBO Web site.

The campaign could not possibly have generated this much content on its own. And it was better that it didn’t.

“The Social Pulpit: Barack Obama’s Social Media Toolkit,” Edelman Digital Public Affairs, January 2009

Why better? Because research and experience consistently show that the most effective persuasion comes from our peers, our friends and our family. And that’s in turn in part because individual people know how to speak in the vernacular that’s right for their audience — college students know how to talk to college students, moms know how to talk to moms, and techies know how to talk to techies. Of course, you have to trust them all to represent you well, but that was a potential that the Obamans not only embraced but celebrated.

Data Collection

One result of all of that list-building, block-walking and phone-banking? Data, lots and lots of data about what potential voters were thinking and about what they were planning to do on election day. This flood of information — updated constantly as elections approached — not only supplemented the campaign’s internal polling, but at times (including during the run-up to the Iowa Caucuses) provided a more accurate view of the electorate:

“We had a lot of voter identification work. We had a lot of field data. So we’d put all that together and model out the election in those states every week. So we’d say, okay, if the election were held this week based on all our data, put it all in a blender, where are we? And obviously, with technology today, we could measure this very carefully. We don’t have to wait for a state to report in how they did that night; we can look at it, down to the volunteer level, because we trusted our volunteers. We gave them the voter file, we said here are the people on your block, you go talk to ’em, you record the result of the conversation. We in Chicago could look at that…”

Obama Campaign Manager David Plouffe, speaking at a post-election event broadcast on C-Span

From modeling to action was a simple but decisive jump, and Obama’s campaign managers made serious resource-allocation decisions (including where to send the candidate, where to send surrogates and where to concentrate advertising) based on volunteer-supplied information up until the last hours of the race. No presidential campaign has ever had access to voter data on this scale or updated this constantly, and it gave Obama’s staff an edge their opponents may not have recognized even existed at the time. And it was only because they trusted their volunteers to edit a database.

Getting Out The Vote

All the months of “fun” notwithstanding, a campaign lives and dies for election day — and the ultimate goal of all of those volunteer hours was to turn out voters on November 4th. Nationwide community organizing fed the final Get Out The Vote frenzy, assisted by online reminders:

On Election Day, the campaign used its massive list for a get-out-the-vote effort. Emails provided people with the names of five others who supported Obama and asked them to call each one to ensure they were going to the polls, and offer a ride if need be.

“Obama’s Road To White House Was Paved With Emails,” David Goetzl, Online Media Daily, December 9, 2008

Not just emails, but also the last in a long chain of text messages:

On Election Day, every voter who’d signed up for alerts in battleground states got at least three text messages. Supporters on average received five to 20 text messages per month, depending on where they lived — the program was divided by states, regions, zip codes and colleges — and what kind of messages they had opted to receive.

“Obama Raised Half a Billion Online,” Jose Antonio Vargas, Washington Post, 11/20/2008

As we’ve seen, even Obama’s online advertising turned to rallying voters during early balloting periods and on election day itself. A last-minute addition to the arsenal: the campaign’s new media and tech teams managed to turn out a very efficient online polling place finder on a short deadline just in time for the general election, which they promoted via online ads, the email list and direct voter contact. Obama’s victory was built on a long series of technological innovations like this one — most of them relatively insignificant on their own, but decisive in combination.

Next up, we’ll look at the most decisive of all: the fundraising.

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Written by
Colin Delany
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