The Ground Game: Open Source vs Closed


If the presidential election is decided by a narrow margin, folks like Michael Adamson could make all the difference -- with a little high-tech help.

A stock trader who lives on a farm outside of the small town of Madison, N.C., Adamson is a volunteer for the Barack Obama campaign. He leads a team of about 15 local volunteers in Rockingham County, a largely rural area of the Carolina Piedmont with a population of just over 90,000 people. Adamson's group is responsible for five precincts, home to about 6,000 registered voters, in the western part of the county. Other teams, all supported by just one paid staffer, are active across Rockingham, which went decisively for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004. Similar operations are in place across North Carolina, a state Democratic presidential candidates have not seriously contested in years, and in other states around the country.

Together, these numerous small organizations give the Obama campaign an army of volunteers, all coordinated via a campaign website called MyBarackObama.com that ties into extensive databases of potential voters. The technology is crucial to the work the volunteers are doing. "If you don't have the right tools in your hands, you can't get the job done," says Adamson, who has volunteered in the past for numerous state and local races, along with two other presidential campaigns. "This is the best-organized campaign I've seen in terms of the ground game."

And the ground game--getting people registered to vote, getting them energized, then getting them to turn out to the polls--could be decisive in a close race. "The strongest organization on the ground can make up two or three points," says Joe Trippi, the veteran Democratic strategist and CBS News analyst who helped architect the Howard Dean campaign's ground-breaking internet strategy. "It can't make up for all the other factors that can come into play, but if it's near a dead heat going into Election Day, the superior ground operation will win." Even if the presidential race turns out to be decided by a relatively wide margin, high turnout can have a huge impact on other contests held that same day, including senatorial, congressional, gubernatorial and local elections. Turnout matters even more in non-presidential years, when a lower percentage of voters show up at the polls.

In this aspect of the presidential race, Obama's tech-savvy campaign may have an advantage over rival John McCain. "This will be the biggest get-out-the-vote operation in the history of America," Trippi says. The Republican's answer to the vaunted MyBarackObama.com website, known as McCainSpace, did not go live until August, and the McCain campaign is generally seen as lagging on the technology and organizational fronts. Obama also will be aided by new group called America Votes, which is helping to coordinate the big-money organizing efforts of major unions and other sympathetic organizations; information from an enormous database maintained by a company called Catalist will be critical to this effort.

Not that McCain goes into the fight unarmed. The 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign enjoyed great success using unglamorous tools like e-mail, along with powerful microtargeting software that facilitated contacts with carefully-chosen possible voters. Cyrus Krohn, director of the eCampain division of the Republican National Committee, says that targeting strategy has been expanded to the Web, with banner ads and search marketing placed to reach the right people. Early results have been promising: In the Louisiana gubernatorial race won by Republican Bobby Jindal last year, for example, turnout among people who responded to the online material with actions such as registering or committing to vote was 76%, versus statewide turnout of 47%. "That's a high click-to-conversion ratio," says Krohn.

Patrick Ruffini, a former online strategist for the Republican National Committee and webmaster of the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign, says the McCain campaign has used e-mail well to do things like alerting people in swing states to local appearances; he believes that relatively low-tech tools, such as e-mail lists, remain powerful and important to the race. And the GOP has a large volunteer pool of its own, with the ability to draw big numbers through groups like the College Republicans and local party organizations.

Yet the sense is that the Democrats have leapfrogged their rivals in terms of putting voter data to use in the field. "Republicans have been at this for a while, it's a real credit to the Democrats that they caught up," Ruffini says. As Karl Rove, Bush's key strategist, former White House advisor and a Fox News pundit wrote in The Wall Street Journal this summer, "Technology has opened even more possibilities for Mr. Obama today." The differences in the two campaigns start with the candidates themselves - not just McCain's much-discussed lack of computer skills, but Obama's interest in organizing, which staffers credit with inspiring the people-powered feel of the operation. Krohn says the Republican approach is more controlled and carefully monitored. "It's the difference between open and closed source," he says.

We've heard for years that the "first internet campaign" was upon us. Whatever that vague title might mean, 2008 looks like the first campaign in which modern technology is deeply integrated into every phase of a presidential campaign organization, not as an add-on or an afterthought, not siloed away from the mainstream, but as a defining element of the operation. Campaign technologies that facilitate fundraising, viral and mass-media messaging and some degree of organizing were proven commodities going into the race, and all have continued to mature during this political season. But just a year ago, the readiness and utility of some tools that may prove critical in this November's election remained open questions. The basic plumbing and wiring needed to interconnect campaign websites to state and national party databases was unfinished. Mobile devices, which have played important roles in politics from South Korea to Spain, had yet to be integrated into a major U.S. campaign. And the impact of social networks on strategy and execution was an unknown.

Now all of these elements are in play. The Obama campaign garnered a reported 2.9 million text-message addresses in the run-up to its announcement of vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden, and both parties will use messaging to get out the vote on Election Day (see sidebar). Volunteers like Michael Adamson and his team, empowered by databases accessed and updated via the Web, are hard at work on the nuts-and-bolts of electioneering. Whether Obama wins or loses, his Internet-enabled campaign will be the model for the future. That's a good thing, says Trippi, for reasons that go beyond partisan politics. "Participation is the lifeblood of democracy."

Part Two: Local Area Networks: How the Obama Campaign Works on the Ground Part Three: Connecting the Campaign: How the Democrats Built Their Network,

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