Local Area Networks: How the Obama Campaign Works on the Ground


Campaigns prize word-of-mouth marketing for the same reason companies do: people respond to their neighbors, with whom they presumably share tastes and values. "Voters talking to voters, neighbor to neighbor, it's the most valuable contact you can have," says Ruffini.

And these days, grassroots outreach may be more important than ever, says Jerry Meek, chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party. Older techniques of contacting voters are diminishing in effectiveness. Many young people don't have land-line telephones, for example, and technologies like TiVo, iPods, and satellite radio make it easy to miss broadcast advertisements. Direct mail seems less effective as more people pay bills and communicate online. "Targeting people through their neighbors is a way of getting around these new obstacles," Meek says.

But training large numbers of volunteers, and arming them with up-to-date information, is a daunting job. That's what makes a website like the Obama campaign's MyBarackObama.com so valuable: it makes targeted information available at mass scale, providing field-workers with names, contact coordinates and voting histories. Says Meek, who recently rolled out a similar site, called Constructing Victory, for North Carolina, "We want to combine technology and grassroots organizing, so technology strengthens the grassroots."

The Obama campaign has a CTO, Michael Slaby, and a web team that includes Dean-campaign veteran Joe Rospars as New Media Director and Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, who helps coordinate online organizing. But the system works like a pyramid, with state officials given access to a lot of functionality, and growing numbers of people below them, down to the volunteer level, allowed fewer and fewer functions, depending on what they need and how well they are known or trusted. The Obama system learns as it goes along, allowing volunteers to feed information gleaned from their work back into the database via their web browsers. Campaign staffers at the local, state, and national levels can see which volunteers do the most work and get the best results, making the organization more efficient over time. Nationwide, MyBarackObama.com has more than 1 million individual user accounts and has been used to promote over 75,000 campaign events.

In Rockingham County, Adamson's group began by recruiting additional volunteers by phone, using lists available through the Obama and North Carolina Democratic Party websites. Working from their own homes, making local calls on their own phones via information pulled from the virtual phone bank, and entering data back into the system, they built a team to canvass the five precincts each divided into smaller areas called "turfs," with about 500 voters apiece, assigned by the campaign. More volunteers were signing up as this article was being reported in mid-September; Adamson, the leader, has not met them all in person.

The first big job Adamson's team undertook was voter registration. The system generated "turf packets" that each team member could pull from the website, which included maps and the locations of houses with unregistered voters. The team doesn't waste time knocking on every door, but goes instead to targeted homes identified by the campaign's database. As of late September, 3,465 new voters had registered across all of Rockingham County, including 1,575 Democrats, 922 Republicans, and 965 unaffiliated, according to Elections Director Janet Odell. In a county that is about 19% African-American, about 27.6% of newly-registered voters are black. Adamson says he personally has registered 50 new voters, and expects to register 50 more by the October 10 deadline."People ask me where I live, and it turns out I'm one of their neighbors," Adamson says. "I can tell them how to get to the Wal-Mart in Mayodan [a nearby town] to register. People assume that big campaigns happen somewhere else, but I'm right here--and the same thing is being done on massive basis in other places across the country."

After registration is done, the team will turn their attention to a get-out-the-vote effort. Using the site's Neighbor-to-Neighbor tool-- a browser-based application that is the latest iteration of organizational software offered by the campaign--volunteers know who to call and the right doors on which to knock. Local people can walk a neighborhood independent of the local campaign office. No help is necessary to print out turf packets. They will remind their neighbors to head to the polls as soon as North Carolina's early-voting period begins on October 16 (as many as one-third of all ballots nationwide are expected to be cast early, and ground-game efforts may be especially effective in that area). The volunteers will hand out maps of early voting stations, offer voters ride to their polling places and check back in with their contacts who have not yet voted right through Election Day on November 4.

Part One: The Ground Game: Open Source vs Closed. Part Three: Connecting the Campaign: How the Democrats Built Their Network.

Part Four: Going Mobile: Texting and Twittering in the New Ground Game.