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Obama’s not-so secret weapon: get out the vote

There is nothing new in saying that election 2012 is probably going to be close. Mitt Romney, following the first debate, has surged from a lagging position to nearly even with or slightly ahead of the President. Romney anchored his lead in North Carolina, drew closer in Iowa, secured a lead in Florida, and has pushed Virginia from a position of leans Obama, to leans Romney. The Romney campaign, justifiably, is enthused and excited. However, as long as it remains too close to call, the President and his campaign, thanks to a not so secret weapon, probably still have an edge.


In early 2008 then Senator Barack Obama was just beginning his campaign for President. He was running against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination and it was a bruising contest. However, from the start, in what was then a new approach to campaigning, the Obama campaign was characterized by its unique focus on the Internet. Of course, web sites and e-mail had become regular features of political campaigning since the mid 1990’s, but no one has used it like Barack Obama.
The Obama campaign seemed to understand that e-mails and text messages had grown from something an individual might check once a day to something that thanks to the growth in mobile devices had become a real time, all the time communications tool. Obama’s campaign sent lots and lots of e-mails and text messages which advertised local meet-ups and special events. It gave the campaign a remarkable flexibility and a dynamic feel. Obama’s supporters and volunteers were able to feel connected in a way, that before, hadn’t seemed possible. Today, in 2012, that kind of approach to politics, information sharing, and organizing events, isn’t new anymore. But, while it may not be new, Obama has continued to use it far more effectively than anyone else.
However, there is one aspect to Obama’s approach to communications and information management that no one, at least not yet, has equaled, and that’s in building and managing a voter database. No other campaign in the history of Presidential politics has ever had a resource quite like it. And no one, or so it seems, appreciates its value better than the Obama campaign. Beginning with the primaries in 2008 the Obama campaign was always collecting data. Their e-mail database, often tied to much more extensive data about the individual, is rumored to have between 10 and 15 million contacts.
Throughout this campaign they have leverage this resource, not only through e-mail and texting, but also with Twitter and Facebook. And it hasn’t all been serious. It’s had a lighter side. They have had contests for “lunch with the President,” and “dinner with the First Lady.” And one, “guess where I am,” contest. These tools have been used extensively for fundraising and encouraging volunteers. The e-mails are short, lively and well written. And they can be open and read, with ease, on a mobile device.
But, that’s just the tip of the Obama database. Beginning in 2008 and now in 2012 the Obama campaign has organized a highly efficient “ground game.” His canvassers, students, local volunteers, as well as paid staff, have been telephoning and door knocking, mostly in what have become the battle-ground states, for months. Using their lists from 2008, which have been updated during the years in between with information on new arrivals and young voters who weren’t old enough to vote in 2008, they have been identifying prospective Obama voters making sure they’re in the new database. Most of their canvassing staff use iPod’s which provide them with in-depth information on the people they’re going to talk to, and allow them to update the information after their visit. These canvassing efforts are run out of staffed local offices. The offices are networked and carefully supervised. The Obama campaign has 45 field offices in Virginia, 60 in Colorado, 120 in Ohio and 103 in Florida. And having just about completed their services as a focus for identifying and encouraging prospective voters their job is shifting to the task of getting out the vote.
In 2008 the carefully nurtured database guided their get-out-the-vote efforts. This included e-mails, calls, and visits. And, thanks to superior data collection from poll watchers, they rapidly knew who had voted and who hadn’t. Going into 2012 the Republicans have tried to build a capability like this, but they really can’t match it. And they know it. After all, Romney only wrapped up the nomination a few months ago while the President’s campaign has been building this database, collecting the data, massaging it, and getting it ready to use at crunch time for nearly four years.
In a way, it’s Obama’s not so secret weapon. One that if the vote is close, as it seems it may be, will significantly help Obama’s chances. According to some of the experts, the votes in some states could come down to a few thousand votes difference or even less. That’s when the Obama ground campaign, one of the best organized in the history of American Presidential politics, may make all the difference.

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