Obama's Voter Registration Explosion

Reaching new people is futile if they aren't registered to vote. The Obama campaign has united web and field recruitment to wage one of the largest voter registration drives of a modern campaign.
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Over the past few weeks of traveling with Barack Obama, it's striking to see how the campaign prioritizes practical organizing at his events. Local operatives are ferried to the stage, so they can make "asks" for goals they know far better than the traveling campaign staff. Those asks range from registration deadlines to early vote programs to joining the text message network, if it's considered effective in a given region. (I definitely never saw field organizers empowered like that when I worked on the Kerry campaign.) That field outreach is supported, of course, by a sophisticated mobilization online.

So in an article for next week's Nation, I tried to explore how these efforts reinforce each other. Here are some excerpts:

Before Barack Obama spoke to a September rally at the University of Nevada, 21-year-old Carmen Gilbert took the stage to address her classmates, who spilled across the quad in a capacity crowd of 12,000 people. She was all business. "Take out your cellphones," said Gilbert, as she ordered the throng of rookie voters to text Obama's headquarters on the spot. With the punch of two buttons -- a message reading NV -- vital organizing intelligence poured into the campaign.

Obama's aides treasure data and contact information for voters in swing states, and text messages provide both. First, the campaign learns when and where a person joined up. So a student with a New York cellphone, who would otherwise be relegated to fundraising appeals, is reclassified for Nevada mobilization. Then, organizers directly reach them with text messages and calls. The campaign also asks supporters to forward text messages and grow the network.

"Every night there's a data sync on who is new and who is a longtime MyBO [Obama social network] user who started making calls," says Joe Rospars, Obama's new-media director, explaining how the campaign integrates virtual actions with organizing on the ground. A swing-state supporter who signs up online will swiftly receive calls from local staff and targeted e-mails....

Reaching new people is futile, of course, if they aren't registered to vote. The Obama campaign has united web and field recruitment to wage one of the largest voter registration drives of a modern campaign. It's the first time since Jesse Jackson's 1980s bids that a candidate has staked success on mobilizing new voters. Obama's October schedule is studded with evidence of this audacious strategy; he's spending precious time in recently bright-red states like North Carolina, where he spoke to a 28,000-person rally on October 5. But he can't win the state within its 2004 universe of registered voters: they re-elected Bush by a whopping 12.5-point margin, about 436,000 votes. Obama needs new registrants just to narrow that gap -- and he must still win back conservative swing voters.

Step one is working. Democratic registration has spiked by seven points in North Carolina since March -- the GOP's is up only a point -- and the Obama campaign says it has registered 160,000 new voters. It has forty-five field offices sending volunteers to find new voters; a parallel hunt continues online.

Obama's Internet success is well known, of course, since he has bested his rivals in both parties on everything from political traffic to YouTube views to MySpace friends. The campaign's use of the web for recruiting new voters, however, is largely below the radar.

That's fine with Obama's aides, who think the quiet, steady growth of the list of new registrants will catch some Republicans off guard. One example is McCain's abrupt choice to cede Michigan, which he announced on the very day that new voters packed an 18,000-person Obama rally at Michigan State. Obama's press shop has done very little to promote its signature registration effort online--the innovative portal VoteForChange. (The campaign required my interviews with its Internet staff to be mostly on background.) VoteForChange has received scant print coverage, but it's a viral hit. Although the site is an Obama operation, it decouples registration from the Hopemonger. The spare bilingual homepage looks more like a search engine, soliciting information and helping visitors register, request absentee ballots or find polling locations... the new site had already bested the average traffic for Senate.gov. Meanwhile, in some states spikes in registration reveal a civic excitement broader than any single campaign can create. In Ohio a record-breaking 94 percent of eligible citizens have now registered.

* * *

It's easy to forget, but during the primary season Obama trailed in most polls before the Iowa caucuses. Credit the man for using personal appeal and the politics of hope to stay afloat, but credit his campaign's sophisticated Internet program for making even that possible. Without the web, they wouldn't have had the money to compete or the network to organize support beyond the party apparatus. Those feats, however, have blue borders. Obama has only altered Democratic politics so far.

If his strategy succeeds, all presidential politics could change. First-time voters -- both this generation of the young, black or marginalized as well as future rookie cohorts -- might become a constituency that candidates pursue. The long shot, if Obama wins big, is a larger electoral universe that forces Republicans to play catch-up. The party that spent decades stifling voter turnout, from illegal suppression to court-sanctioned ploys like ID requirements, could find electoral salvation depends on the ability to register its own new voters. Couple that grassroots pressure with an economic crisis stoking intense bipartisan populism, and a "new politics" might really be on the horizon.

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