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The Campaign I Would Like To See

Someone sent me a link to the YouTube video below and suggested I take a look at about the 35-36 minute mark. I admit, my curiosity got the better of me and I tried to skip ahead, but the gremlins at YouTube would not allow it. I ended up watching the whole thing. I was surprised to hear my name mentioned at about the suggested frame. This is apparently part of the Authors@Google series in which book authors chat with Google employees. Garrett Graff was discussing online politics.


The question in which I was mentioned had to do with this Washington Post article in which I said most online campaigns really aren’t moving the ball forward. The question was whether Garrett agreed with my assertion. I’ll let you watch for yourself the discussion and his answer. It’s good, so I recommend you do.

Let me, however, elaborate on the original question I was asked and the reply. I did not mean to imply that campaigns weren’t doing interesting things. Mindy Finn with Romney’s campaign did some really good work on the “create your own ad” effort. Obama’s people have done an amazing job of fundraising online. There are some novel online efforts being undertaken.

What I meant, more specifically, was there does not appear to be any effort to convert that excitement and energy into actual votes. Most of the GOTV work being done is still being done offline. Take for instance this note I got from Hillary’s people.

I’m writing to you because Hillary needs you now more than ever. As I write this email, Team Hillary volunteers here at headquarters are on the phones talking to voters. Can you pitch in for Hillary and join us at the phone bank for at least two get-out-the-vote shifts between now and March 4th? Reply to this email to let me know when you can do your part.

Every night this week a senior advisor to Hillary, including Harold Ickes, Terry McAuliffe, Guy Cecil and campaign manager Maggie Williams, will join our volunteers for strategy discussion of the path to victory. Which night will you volunteer this week?

We need help every day. Our shifts are:

10 a.m. – 2 p.m.
2 p.m. – 6 p.m.
6 p.m. – 10 p.m.

Reply to this email to let me know when you can pitch in for Hillary.

We also have a critical need for volunteers this weekend. Can you pitch in this Saturday or Sunday? Please reply to me and let me know when you can help out!

Obama, Thompson, and Romney all gave me tools that allowed me to make such calls any time it was convenient for me. The technology really isn’t very difficult to create or manage. You allow your user to log in, get a script and numbers, make calls and complete a survey form, and report back the same data they would report back if they were sitting in your HQ.

The Hillary model, which looks like the same model Bill used in 1992, assume I have four uninterrupted hours to spend in your office. It also assumes I want to drive there, find parking, arrange for a sitter, etc. etc. It doesn’t allow for me to participate on my terms on my schedule.

This was something we understood in 2004 and was the reason we pioneered online call tools with the Bush campaign. We made a half-million contacts using our online tools. That was over and above the millions made in the traditional way.

Had Clinton’s campaign spent some time building such a tool instead of figuring out how many Drudge clones they could make (ahem, ahem) they could have empowered their supporters to get involved when and how it was convenient for them.

That was the point that I was trying to make in the Post piece. It’s not that campaigns aren’t doing anything jazzy with technology, it’s the fact that very little of it is meant to empower voters. Romney’s create your own ad effort was a great example. Give people stock footage, audio, video, images, etc, and let them be part of your creative team. Give them walk lists, call sheets, and other tools to mobilize voters and let them do it.

Where the campaigns this year have fallen short is they gave us tools without showing me the best way to use it. If I hand you a hammer, nails and a saw, you could eventually figure out that you could cut down a tree and make something. If I gave you the same tools with a guide to woodworking from raw materials, you’d be much better off.

My vision of campaign 2008 in December of 2004 was dramatically different from what has been. While it still may come to fruition, I’m not seeing much evidence that it will. It should, by nature, have been Obama, Paul or Thompson who pulled this off. I’ll explain what I had hoped to see.

Imagine a completely different campaign. Imagine a campaign that invested heavily in both the mobilization tactics and the microtargeting acumen of the Bush campaign, with the grassroots groundswell of the Dean campaign. Imagine taking a national database of registered voters and creating a sense of ownership among your online activists to reach low-propensity or non-voters. Here’s how it would work.

A campaign invests in microtargeting to determine what their typical supporter looks like as a function of consumer behavior, issue preferences, etc. The campaign buys consumer data for every citizen of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, etc that matches their model. Not just voters, mind you, but every single citizen that fits the mold.

Online activists are given tools like online phone banks, walk tools and handouts to go door-to-door reaching out to other voters who support their guy. More importantly, though, they match the consumer data for unregistered voters against their voter data to determine who is NOT registered to vote. An intensive campaign is run among online activists to reach them.

When activists are engaged, but nobody else is (say January through October of 2007) the campaign has their people working to register those people. The activists are brought in at the ground level to begin building what will be a long-term relationship with these folks. Geotargeting will allow the activist to find people located very near them, and reach out to them not just as a campaign volunteer, but as a neighbor – as someone who shops at the same grocery store, whose kids go to the same school.

The campaign would ask those volunteers to “adopt” those non-voters and urge them to a) drop off registration forms, b) follow up to make sure they get registered – which the campaign would verify by tracking voter registration additions against it’s internal database of targeted non-voters, c) deliver news and information about the campaign, and d) get them to vote in the primaries/caucuses/general.

We had, with the Bush campaign, developed tools along two separate lines. We called them all “Virtual Precinct”, but they were comprised of either your friends and family (to whom you could e-mail info) or targeted voters living near you (to whom you could walk, call, etc). This year, I had expected to see the two merge as campaigns used microtargeting, geotargeting, and online activism in synchronicity.

You have given your activists incredibly powerful tools to build the campaign. By explaining the goal, building a community, empowering them to be involved, and fostering a sense of ownership in the outcome, you have given them the instruction manual and a way to judge their success.

In addition, you could have volunteers in states with late primaries reaching out to those with early primaries – not in the way Howard Dean attempted with outsiders identified by their neon hats tromping through town, but via phone, e-mail and mail. Personal messages of support for a candidate delivered with passion by a voter in the comfort of their surroundings, are more effective that any stale script repeated over and over by an underfed, underappreciated volunteer jammed into a tight space with 85 other people on phones two feet away.

Think of it as the difference between telecommuting and working in a sweatshop.

That’s what I had expected to see and that’s where I think campaigns are still missing what’s possible. Campaigns in 2008 are, for the most part, still stuck in the mold of the 1980s and 1990s.

We can buy groceries from home and never have to go to the store. We can buy any product we want from Amazon, or others and have it the next day without ever leaving the couch. We can play video games with friends we have never met a half a world away. We can engage in whatever pursuits we choose with others who share our hobbies regardless of where we all reside.

But despite all of that, campaigns stil force us to go to their office, to use their phone, to drink their old, cold coffee and eat their leftover doughnuts. Campaigns are still about me doing what they want, when they want me to do it. They miss the simple fact that there is no better spokesperson for the campaign than a single dedicated supporter talking to their friends, neighbors, and family in comfortable surroundings.

Update: Apparently the Clinton campaign actually does have an online phone bank tool. That actually makes the plea for me to appear in person even more confusing. I have not, at any time, received an e-mail asking me to make calls using that tool. I, as a would-be volunteer, was sitting here untapped. I could have made countless calls into states that voted earlier, and states that vote after Virginia. The campaign, however, never mobilized me to use the tool they built. Instead, they waited until after my primary, and until it was almost too late. to ask me to make calls at all.

Written by Michael Turk