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Liveblogging the Harvard Internet & Politics conference part 6: the Obama Campaign

BY Editors | Thursday, December 11 2008

This morning, the Harvard Internet & Politics conference continues with two "deep dives" into the McCain and Obama campaigns. We continue to operate under Chatham House Rules, so the following liveblog will remain unattributed, but the speakers in these sessions played a role in the campaigns. This second morning session is about the Obama campaign.

Starting out, there was a sense that there were a lot of people waiting for the campaign to start, beginning with the "Draft Obama" movement. If we're going to win this, it's going to have to be organic because the party bureaucracy would be for Hillary, and the Internet was going to be essential. It was a strategic decision given the environment, though one of the goals was to leave the electorate better off than when they started.

"We had a wide lane created for us" in organizing, fundraising, etc. The fundamental premise was accepted: centralizing around the online campaign, saving money by establishing the design standards.

A phenomenal group of people attracted magnetically to the candidate and campaign. The whole premise of the campaign was grassroots organizing, that was the value set. There was also an opportunity where networked technologies could enable it.

Online organizing always had a tieback to offline activities. YouTube videos were played at rallies, with URLs linking to doing something (travel to a battleground state). "We don't just work on the website. It was a vehicle to empower the grassroots... It was our challenge to use technology to make all that more efficient, make it easier to make phone calls, find supporters in your neighborhood."

"Probably 90% of our organizing was face-to-face -- New Media's focus was always how to build that 90%." But many supporters lacked tech knowledge -- e.g. in Pittsburgh, one of the first things the office would do with new volunteers is help them learn to use PA Tools, even get an email address to begin with. And MyBO was more diverse than the typical Facebook group -- disproportionately minority, female, low-income. There was a sense that this was the first time people were signing up for a site.

From observations and interactions, e.g. conference calls, people in their 30s, 40s, 50s, skewed towards women. But the team didn't datamine to match the names to Facebook, MySpace, etc. The online relationship was a relationship, so it was important that we didn't get information about them that they didn't give to us -- we didn't want to create a Big Brother relationship with them. Though we did give them opportunities to give us more information.

The panel demurred from specific numbers of how big the New Media team was, instead pointing to other factors. "We had an organizational advantage both in the primaries and the general that made a material difference."

What about content created outside the campaign? The team timed Michelle's email spreading the Yes We Can video before Super Tuesday. Advice about these unexpected videos: "Not to freak out about it..." In most organizations, the campaign never gets beyond "What if people say something we don't agree with." Instead take the attitude of "Who cares?" There was a cultural evolution in the media and better understanding over time that this material wasn't all coming from Obama.

At the first Camp Obama, there was a huge negotiation between those who organized themselves in MyBO and those who were brought in. But more and more the leadership on the ground were brought into MyBO and vice versa. Over time we were getting more volunteers from online. In the primaries, Field relationship to New Media was different: get them to send an email to build an event. But in the transition to the generals, came to understand that New Media could build a common culture nationally. For example, the campaign organizers were struggling to get local organizers to focus on voter registration and were getting pushback until New Media made video to promote it.

YouTube as distribution vehicle for real world action, e.g. linking Barack's own experience with voter registration as an organizer to the supporters. Some videos had a conversion impact, others didn't -- the campaign eventually built an analytics team to analyze the conversion rate.

A lot of the early videos was with supporters where "Barack" and "Obama" were rarely mentioned. And that continued across the 1800 videos, with so many different types of people. "Almost every single person in America had a video they could relate to."

While campaign used extensive, non-shared voter data to contact voters, they didn't use it for the relationship with the supporters.

Re: FISA -- there was no question about whether we were going to squash the group, because it was so outside the valueset and ethos of the campaign. The whole idea was to allow people to self-organize.

Hypothetically, what if Ron Paul supporters wanted to use the site? No -- groups had to support the overall mission, and this was in reality a very rare situation.

Always an effort to move people from curious to supporter to volunteer to mobilizer.

In Pittsburgh, made sure to cut the territory to make sure volunteers from different races actually work together.

We always presumed that our audience was the connected few talking to the unconnected many. We tried to arm people with the culture and materials as if they were the only people who could get the campaign offline into their neighborhoods.

Facebook was enormously important to caucuses -- many of the youngest people don't use email. The easiest way to organize them was little Facebook groups in every high school and college. This was something that we trained the field organizers on how to do, using spreadsheets to track every school, every group. The Facebook application was more important than the page -- a huge potential to build anything you want, particularly towards the generals with more resources. Example: throwing the voter registration into the app.

"Millions" of the 13 million would not self-identify as a Democrat, though there is an evolving definition of what it means to be a Democrat.

20% of the people who went to the Iowa caucuses found their location from the Obama site.

New Media's interface with the field: some pieces were commissioned for specific purposes and events, others were volunteer-created/campaign-directed and filtered through (maybe 1/10 were of such quality that the campaign actively promoted).

In California the problem was 9 staff for thousands of supporters, which necessitated the training of leaders, not just activists. This led to Camp Obama, which became the Fellows program, which became the national field program. Now the campaign organizers are now asking volunteers to consider things like running for office.

The jump in resources enabled the team to implement their wish lists. For example: voters looking up polling places would produce 5 other names of neighbors to go and get when voting.