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The Technology Firsts in Ohio's Issue 2 Campaign

BY Nick Judd | Wednesday, November 9 2011

Yesterday's Ohio elections culminated an unprecedented online-driven issue campaign in which both sides honed online tools and tactics that in some cases they were using for the first time.

The labor-backed We Are Ohio initiative led a social-media-fueled campaign against Senate Bill 5, a law that curtailed the collective bargaining rights of public-sector unions, will be repealed following a referendum, called Issue 2, which on Tuesday ended with an early tally reported to be 61 percent in favor of repeal. Labor organizers in Ohio told me in July that they were using Facebook, Twitter and other online tools for the first time in that race.

"A lot of the unions did, for the first time, put something online for their members, to be able to get involved versus the usual flyers," or being urged to come to a meeting, AFL-CIO Ohio communications director Jason Perlman told me this summer. A spokeswoman for the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, Sally Meckling, told me that a thousands-strong march to deliver a 1.3-million-signature petition to repeal Senate Bill 5 earlier this summer was planned exclusively on social media. Perlman said that AFL-CIO used Facebook to coordinate locations where supporters in rural areas could drive up, sign that repeal petition, and drive off again, as if they were pulling over at a drive-thru espresso stand. And for union members that couldn't meet in person, labor leaders set up massive conference calls reminiscent of the tele-town halls that members of Congress used during the health care debate in 2009.

Gov. John Kasich and a pro-Issue 2 group called Building a Better Ohio also had a strong web presence. That group went online to direct volunteers to call centers and sought to use Facebook to motivate supporters, too. Both sides surely had the full range of established online tools — from search ads to Facebook groups — at their disposal, and made regular use of all of them.

So it wouldn't be right to attribute the success or failure of a ballot initiative to the tools used in campaigning for or against it. But in at least one case, Democratic technologists tell me they think Ohio was a proving ground for a bit of software that's now a definite candidate for 2012.

In early October, I reported on an experimental tool NGP VAN was testing out with We Are Ohio. This tool asked the visitor to connect their Facebook profile to a web application powered by NGP VAN's database software. (VAN, which merged with NGP last year, has for years been a central clearinghouse for applications of voter data used by progressive campaigns and causes.) As the visitor indicated Facebook friends to reach out to about Issue 2, the application would check each name against a voter file and come back with which friends to call and which to skip. There are already other tools doing much the same thing, such as one Votizen deployed in the San Francisco mayoral campaign — where Interim Mayor Ed Lee has a healthy lead in the first round of the city's first-ever experiment with ranked choice voting — and an upcoming piece of software called Amicus that was demonstrated last month in New York.

"We're thinking this is something you're going to see as important in 2012," Mark Sullivan, VAN's co-founder, told me today. "I think that what you're going to see is campaigns wanting to tap into the relationships between people and causing them to have conversations and make voter contact be a lot more valuable."

Alex Lundry, a vice president at Republican data and public opinion firm TargetPoint, agrees.

"A big goal of the data movement within campaigning is to get meaningful connections between an online presence and an offline voter file," Lundry said.

"If you can get someone's email address and link them to their mailing address, then you can be smarter about how you contact them, when you contact them, where you contact them," he said. Later in the conversation, he added, "There's also applications: once you have an email address, its easier to target an online display ad to someone."

Sullivan says Ohio was a proving ground for the kind of online persona/offline action connection that may play a larger role in the 2012 campaigns. We Are Ohio spokeswoman Melissa Fazekas told me in October that thousands of volunteers had used NGP VAN's Facebook tool, which they called the "Friends and Family program."

"We had a practical chance to deploy tools that aren't easy to get people to take to," Sullivan said. "And we got to learn a fair amount about making them work right."

In a follow-up call, he added that more broadly, what happened in Ohio was unprecedented.

"Never before have we seen literally millions of voter-to-voter contacts on a referendum issue," Sullivan said. Remember VAN's databases are the ones that track not just online interactions, but, in theory, everything — every door knock, every phone call.

Last night at a press conference, Kasich, the Ohio governor, said that he would "respect what people to have to say."

"It's clear that the people have spoken," he said. His remarks were streamed online and made available on video before the end of the night. "My view is when people speak in a campaign like this, in a referendum, you have to listen when you're a public servant."

He said he would "take a deep breath and spend some time reflecting on what happened here."

Digital strategists will be, too — just for different reasons.