Obama uses speech for high-tech outreach

August 28, 2008 5:53:05 PM PDT
Forgive some of the 75,000 people amassed at Invesco Field Thursday if their thumbs are bit weary by the time Barack Obama takes the stage for a triumphant acceptance of his presidential nomination. In the hours before he made his entrance, these supporters were being repeatedly asked to text messages to the campaign and to make phone calls from specially tailored call sheets as part of an unprecedented effort to mobilize voters and get nonvoters to register.

The speech itself may or may not become a seminal moment in the campaign. But this effort to combine telecommunications, microtargeting techniques and Obama's known ability to draw a crowd could be remembered as a shrewd and groundbreaking calculation to expand Obama's vote base.

Obama's campaign has identified 55 million voting age Americans across the country who are not registered to vote. It has done this by comparing registration lists with lists of potential voters gleaned from consumer databases the same way credit card companies track people's spending.

Campaign officials estimates more than two-thirds would vote for Obama.

Thursday, as the crowd settled in to their seats at Invesco Field, a towering projection screen at one end of the stadium flashed a giant interactive map of the United States.

"We're going to do some work," Obama's Colorado director Ray Rivera announced, calling on the crowd to pull out their phones and send a message to the Obama text code. With some nimbly and others clumsily thumbing, the map lit up with the home states of the message senders.

"Let's light up the map and let's light a path for America's future"

The call to action inspired 62-year-old Connie Zuckschwerdt, a Michigan delegate from Corunna, to send her first text message. But it took the help of the Blackberry-wielding delegate next to her to get it done.

"That's it. ... Push send," said Kathy McAttee, 41, a delegate from DeWitt, Mich. "You just sent your first text message. Yay!"

Jason Rae, a 21-year-old delegate from Rice Lake, Wis., said he had his doubts that text messaging would be a good tool to reach a wide spectrum of voters.

"I think it will work much better with young people," said Rae. "If you can get younger people out to the polls on election day, you can win."

Obama campaign manager David Plouffe gave the event and the outreach effort a sense of urgency.

"Every day, every hour is critical," he said. "The stakes in this election are too big. We need all of you. We have to out-hustle, outwork, outthink them."

About three hours before Obama was scheduled to speak, his camp sent a text message of its own to anyone who had asked to be notified of his running mate selection last week. "Final night of the conventions tonight - don't miss Barack's speech!" the message said. "To get involved locally, REPLY: VOL plus your FIRST NAME and TOWN"

With fast approaching voter registration deadlines in key battleground states, the campaign is furiously using its high-tech gadgetry and vast data bases to make sure potential Obama supporters are registered.

"We know we need to expand the electorate," said Jenny Backus, an Obama spokeswoman at the convention.

The campaign initially planned to have the Invesco crowd use their cell phones to reach out to voters and nonvoters. But Backus said such an endeavor would have overwhelmed Denver cell systems. Instead, the campaign has set up about 130 telephones throughout the stadium. Attendees encircle the tables, section by section and take turns making calls.

At the same time, the Colorado Democratic Party was mounting its own drive, with stadium volunteers placing calls to Colorado voters who had been identified as undecided in the presidential contest.

A group of about two dozen volunteers worked over folding tables, hands pressed over their ears to try to hear the people they were calling over the din of the public address system and the crowd all around them.

At each table, the Obama supporters worked off a list of area residents, and read from a script encouraging people to watch Obama's speech tonight, and visit his Web site or sign up for text messages to their cell phones.

"To tell you the truth you can't hear much, you can't really hear who you're talking to," said Anita Padilla, a 50-something telecommunications worker from Denver.

In about five minutes, Padilla made five calls, getting one positive response, two disconnected messages, a hang-up, and a "no."

While the outreach to voters and nonvoters is by itself a useful tactic, the calls will generate useful lists of phone numbers, many of them identified by the specific issue of interest to the person on that end of the call.

"It's a data gathering exercise as well," Backus said.

A campaign spread sheet obtained by The Associated Press lists the number of eligible voters in each of the 50 states, highlighting the 18 states where Obama has been spending the most money. Different columns identify the number of non-registered eligible voters, distinguishing them by age and race.

For instance, the campaign knows that there are nearly 170,000 eligible voters in Missouri who are between the ages of 18 and 24 and are not registered to vote. Through data mining techniques, the campaign has identified many of those people and can make a direct appeal to them.

The campaign sought to replicate the stadium effort at 4,500 parties to watch Obama's speech in various battleground states. Backus said volunteers would be making calls from the watch parties as well.

On the Net:

Convention coverage from Eyewitness News
Barack Obama: http://www.barackobama.com
Democratic National Convention http://www.demconvention.com/
Convention videos from the DNCC http://www.demconvention.com/dncc-video/