Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Obama's Campaign To Launch Holy Grail Of Digital Campaigning

Barack Obama's re-election campaign for the White House is poised to launch its secret weapon: an online tool that the campaign hopes will vastly increase its ability to mobilize volunteers and potential voters across the US.

The new tool, called Dashboard, is being seen as the possible Holy Grail of digital political organizing, one that has eluded campaign chiefs for years. It is already being road-tested in several of the crucial swing states that Obama must hold onto if he is to remain in office.

The technology has been incorporated into the campaign's website, myBarackObama.com, and is expected to be made available to thousands of staff and volunteers across the country within the next 10 days. Its URL can be found through search, though it remains inaccessible to most Obama supporters until the launch.

For the past eight years, online experts working within both parties, but particularly within the Democratic party, have aspired to create the first fully formed digital campaign. That goal may now be within their grasp.

The hope of Dashboard is that data acquired by volunteers from voters canvassing in Ohio will immediately be synced with that gathered by those running phone banks in New Hampshire and with the outreach efforts of volunteers at myBarackObama.com, giving campaign bosses a real-time master view of the president's re-election efforts throughout the country.

The Dashboard project is being led by Michael Slaby, one of Obama's digital gurus, along with Joe Rospars and Teddy Goff and Obama's director of field organizing Jeremy Bird. Collectively, they have been quietly reinventing traditional presidential races for the wired age.

They have put together a team of more than 100 statisticians, predictive modellers, data mining experts, mathematicians, software engineers, bloggers, internet advertising experts and online organizers at the Obama For America headquarters in downtown Chicago, which has been laboring since its start to craft a new generation of digital campaign tools.

They are keeping specific details about Dashboard heavily under wraps for fear that they might lose the substantial advantage they now enjoy over their rivals in the Romney campaign.

They have also been keen not to reveal the tool until it has undergone substantial testing by staff. All that the Obama team will say is that it represents a major step forward that could "make a huge difference in how we organize for 2012".

Dashboard, they add, will allow any volunteer for the first time "to join, connect with and build your neighborhood team online".

The cutting-edge tool seeks to put in place what Obama's digital gurus tried to achieve in 2008 but ran out of time and resources within that presidential election cycle. Its aim is to amplify the electoral impact of campaign organizers and volunteers on the ground by connecting them to each other in real time and to the central HQ through the internet.

The hope is that it will become the election equivalent of the Facebook games CityVille and FarmVille, where online participants cooperate with their social networks to run a city or manage a farm. In this case, Dashboard's creators hope to bring the power of the social networking right to the doorstep of the American voter.

Staffers in key districts of vital swing states will be able to instantly access data on people in their locality who have subscribed to myBarackObama.com's e-mail list and might be willing to volunteer their time. In past elections, local staff and activists couldn't easily piggyback off the campaign's internet operation, and relied primarily on their own contacts and local knowledge about who to approach.

Volunteers will also be able to log in to Dashboard through their mobile phones, giving them instant data on potential supporters and Obama voters as they canvass a neighborhood.

"The Holy Grail for political organizers is the ability to see what impact you are having as you go door to door," said Eli Pariser, former director of the liberal campaigning website Moveon.org and CEO of the new sharing site Upworthy. "If Dashboard works as billed, it will import into politics the kind of feedback loops we are familiar with from Facebook and online games."

Pariser also suggested that Dashboard could increase the contrast, already visible this year, between the Obama campaign's emphasis on on-the-ground engagement with voters, and the focus on negative TV advertising favored by the Romney campaign and the Republican strategist Karl Rove. "The Obama campaign takes engaging with voters seriously and that's something that sets it apart from the majority of campaigns – Republican or Democratic," Pariser said.

One of the key qualities of Dashboard, built into its make-up, is competitiveness. The tool's designers hope that by making local data available to volunteers and staff, it will encourage neighborhood teams to have a healthy ambition to be the best in meeting targets for the number of calls made, doors knocked upon and new voters registered.

"It's like a personal fundraising thermometer, but at scale and applied to field organizing," Teddy Goff, the Obama campaign's digital director told Rolling Stone earlier this year.

Dashboard could prove to be a powerful weapon for the Democrats not just in 2012 but in future Congressional and presidential races. The Guardian understands that unlike previous efforts, where digital innovations have been owned by Rospars' private company, Blue State Digital, Dashboard has been built from scratch in-house by the Obama re-election team.

It is not clear what will happen to the technology after 6 November, but it is likely that the Democratic National Committee, the party's organizational hub, will want to keep a handle on it.


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