Obama’s Cellphone Army

28 10 2008


Obama’s Cellphone Army

Swing Voters Are As Far Away As A Yalie’s Laptop


YALE STUDENTS, including Seth Extein, from left, from Boca Raton, Fla., Sarah Turbow, of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Emily Auchincloss, of Weston, make calls for the Obama campaign to voters in Florida. They’re gathered at a phone bank in the common area of Yale’s Berkeley College. (BOB MACDONNELL / HARTFORD COURANT / October 22, 2008)

LaTisha Campbell perched on a couch inside the Gothic common room at Yale University, holding a cellphone to her ear and balancing her MacBook Pro on her lap.

An Obama campaign website filled the screen, listing the undecided voter in Florida who Campbell was calling by name (Emma), age (49) and gender (female). Her iPod Touch lay within arm’s reach, open to a page detailing Obama’s education platform, just in case the voter wanted to talk about the issue.

Emma wasn’t home, but the person on the line told Campbell that Emma was no longer undecided.

“Yay!” Campbell, an 18-year-old freshman, said after the call ended. “The person’s already supporting!”

She clicked a button on the Obama website to indicate that she had left a message, hit the “Save and Next Voter” button and moved on to her next call.

All around Campbell, students were sprawled across couches and clustered on the floor, with laptops open and cellphones to their ears as the room filled with the hum of a political campaign.

“I am calling to see if you will be supporting Barack Obama in the November presidential election.”

“Barack Obama is the only candidate who’s gonna cut taxes for 95 percent.”

“We just want to make sure voting is an easy process for you.”

For four hours several nights a week, a room at Yale turns into an Obama phone bank, where any student with a cellphone and a laptop can become a virtual campaign worker, chatting up undecided voters in battleground states from the comfort of a dorm in uncontested Connecticut.

Campaign volunteers still campaign the old-fashioned way, but at Yale and elsewhere, campaigns are increasingly turning to technology, engaging supporters in new ways and — in the process — dramatically changing the way people participate in elections.

Both Obama and John McCain have profiles on Facebook, MySpace and other social networking sites. Both campaigns keep blogs, run Internet ads and send e-mail updates to supporters.

Obama has shattered fundraising records in part by soliciting funds by e-mail. He announced his pick for vice president in a mass text message to supporters. There’s even an Obama application for the iPhone, which sorts your contacts by state, lists the most contested states first and denotes whether you’ve called them or not.

An Unlikely Lens

Andrew Rasiej, co-founder of techPresident, which tracks “how the candidates are using the web, and how the web is using them,” sees the change through the unlikely lens of his 82-year-old father.

Rasiej said his father would never have called friends to promote a candidate or send out mailings in previous elections — that would have seemed too overt. But he has been e-mailing YouTube videos of Obama to friends, something Rasiej said seems more akin to talking around the dinner table with friends.

“The technology has allowed my father to become a 21st-century pamphleteer,” he said.

And getting supporters to spread a candidate’s message can translate into more than free promotion. Both candidates have capitalized on emerging technology, Rasiej said, but Obama in particular has managed to mobilize an online community. If Obama wins, it will not be just because he ran a good campaign, he said.

“Obama’s success is because people created their own campaigns for him,” Rasiej said. “The people who’ve been supporting him and working for him, whether they’ve been tied to the campaign directly or whether they’ve been doing something on their own, they have a sense of ownership. They feel responsible for his success.”

For young people fluent in technology, campaigning any other way might seem quaint. Dan Levine, field coordinator of Wesleyan Students for Barack Obama, is 19 and working on his first presidential campaign, running phone banks similar to the ones at Yale.

He said it hadn’t occurred to him that this year’s use of technology on the campaign might represent something new.

“A lot of that I take for granted,” he said.

But Elissa Voccola, 21, president of the College Republicans at Western Connecticut State University, has noticed a difference. She volunteered for President Bush‘s campaigns in 2000 and 2004 and now campaigns for 5th District congressional candidate David Cappiello.

It’s now automatic to look up a candidate’s profile on Facebook or MySpace to see how many supporters he or she has, Voccola said. She and other students involved in politics routinely use Facebook to recruit members and announce meetings or events. This election season, she tends to communicate with fellow volunteers through text messages.

“It’s more centered around my cellphone and my computer than it’s ever been,” Voccola said.


The ease of participating in the campaign helped pull in Emma Sokoloff-Rubin.

The Yale sophomore was on her way to the library to write a paper when she stopped by the common room to sign up for a weekend trip to campaign in Pennsylvania and noticed the student phone bank. She figured she could make some calls — after all, she already had her laptop and cellphone.

Like many of the phone bank volunteers, Sokoloff-Rubin, 19, said she wanted to know she had done her part for Obama’s campaign. But she doesn’t have a car or large blocks of free time, so going anywhere to volunteer regularly would be difficult. A phone bank on campus that she could drop by on the way to the library made perfect sense.

She ended each call or message by urging the person on the other end to vote, no matter which candidate, and offered a toll-free number to call for any questions about voting.

Nearby, someone bragged about having reached 30 people. Of course, Sokoloff-Rubin said, at Yale it’s competitive.

While the well-funded Obama campaign has been at the forefront of technology, Tim Plungis, co-chairman of the College Republicans at the University of Connecticut, said he expects technology increasingly will be used to benefit candidates with fewer resources.

Campaigns can put out commercials on YouTube for free, and phone banks using everyday people at home — Mitt Romney‘s primary campaign used them — mean lots of work can be done by volunteers with minimal overhead. As the electorate gets more used to the Internet, Plungis predicted the features young people use to campaign now will become increasingly popular.

The co-directors of Yale for Obama, Ben Lazarus and Jacob Koch, are already thinking about how the networks they and other campaign organization have built will evolve after the election. Already, Lazarus said, college students and grass-roots participants have become more powerful in this election cycle than ever before.

“When else in history could a college kid in Connecticut log on to his computer and identify a key swing voter in a key swing state, call that person, talk to them about the election, then record it and instantly send that information that they’ve recovered into the central campaign database?” Lazarus said.





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