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Look familiar? Old campaign tool, new advocacy purpose

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, November 24 2009


SEIU's latest online health care push recycles technology from the 2008 Obama campaign, but adds a new Twitter twist.

SEIU has made something old new again.

The health care union turned Blue State Digital's peer-to-peer advocacy technology — what then-candidate Barack Obama's campaign used to empower volunteers to call Democrats in advance of the 2008 Democratic primary caucuses — into an issues advocacy platform.

In its push to get new health care policies through the U.S. Senate, SEIU on Nov. 18 launched an application seeking volunteers for phone banks in Connecticut, Louisiana, Arkansas and Nebraska — volunteers who will then lobby constituents of Joe Lieberman, Mary Landrieu, Blanche Lincoln and Ben Nelson. The constituents, SEIU hopes, will then call their senators in turn, and urge them to take a tone more friendly to the Democratic line as the health care bills come to the Senate floor.

The application is a version of Blue State Digital's peer-to-peer advocacy tool that was rebuilt in-house at SEIU, said Jessica Kutch, the point person for health care on the union's new media team.

The 2008 presidential campaign redefined how the technology, particularly digital media, is of use to political campaigns. While there have not yet been any paradigm-shifting technologies put in play in America's health care debate, the amount of money being poured into the issue has led to some '08 campaign tools coming into the mainstream — and the creation of some new tools, too.

Many organizations are getting their constituents to call their elected officials, but this tool goes a more circuitous route. SEIU is hoping that volunteers will call constituents of the four senators, each of whom are posing a problem for proponents of changes to health care to varying degrees. The constituents, SEIU hopes, will then call the senators themselves.

Kutch thinks it's a first.

"We haven't done this before," she said. "I haven't seen any campaign that's done serious peer-to-peer phonebanking in a non-election.

"I'm kind of testing the waters here," she said.

Speaking with me on Nov. 19, Kutch said she expected to relaunch another tool the next day: An app that takes a supporter's e-mail address and ZIP Code and returns a sequential number, one for each person who professes support for what SEIU calls "gender equality in health care," which the supporter is encouraged to tweet. It had already been put to use the day before.

But SEIU isn't the only player in this debate putting a new strategy into play online. The Tea Party Patriots post suitably patriotic tweets onto their website and invite viewers to retweet what they see. The website ranks members by activity level with a "Most Active Patriots" counter, presumably to encourage people to post to the site and organize events.


The Tea Party Patriots want you to see their posse.

Eric J. Odom, the conservative online advocacy consultant who is at the very least a contender for the title of the tea partiers' technological teabagger-in-chief — at least until heading back to the GOP fold as his movement suffered internal strife — has yet to respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

Organizing for America, the presidential version of Barack Obama's campaign grassroots, has an application online that exhorts supporters to call Congress, finds their congresscritter by ZIP Code, and report calling their representative. As calls are reported, they appear on a dynamically updated widget. OFA had already launched — and we had already written about — a tool that tracked tweets to members of Congress from their constituents, urging them to back a health care plan.

In October, OFA launched an earlier iteration of phone banking targeted to representatives. Kutch and MobileActive's Katrin Verclas, who discussed the subject at a recent PdF workshop at CUNY Baruch on mobile technology, said a phone-banking push on health care from OFA and other organizations several weeks ago resulted in a flood of calls to the Capitol Hill switchboard.

Trying to overload the congressional switchboards or the phone lines for a senator's district office is not exactly new. Neither are petitions, even online ones — and the Twitter tool is essentially an online petition.

But these tools — or toys — add a twist, and that's the point. Kutch said the new media push is in part an effort to keep going without creating list fatigue; SEIU has been hitting up the same people to get on the phone or write letters on this issue specifically since at least January.

Among the other "twists" is an increased reliance on Facebook. Kutch hopes volunteers will build a community there and create crosstalk. But there are no guarantees.

The SEIU phone bank tool did pack kitchen counters and in living rooms in 2008, when it was used in its original form as part of Obama's presidential run. Volunteers in states like New York picked up their cell phones to try and talk voters in states like Texas into supporting Obama in their Democratic caucuses. They were armed, via the web, with lists of phone numbers and talking points, including the MoveOn.org take on how the Democratic caucus process worked in their particular state.

This time, the volunteers will get talking points and the phone number for their (erstwhile, as far as SEIU is concerned) senator's office.

"All of this is sort of new," she said. "I don't know how it's going to work."