After the last two cycles, even the most cynical of political observers must concede that the electorate is becoming more engaged in politics. But what if your white-hot partisans are small in number or concentrated in areas far from where you need to rally support? That’s where technology comes in.
FLS Connect, an election services firm, is one of a handful of organizations that are using this technology to direct voters’ enthusiasm where it is needed most.
Rich Beeson, former political director at the RNC and currently a partner with FLS Connect, says that new technology has allowed campaigns to harness the natural enthusiasm of hardcore supporters. As an example of this, he points to Nan Hayworth’s successful campaign to unseat Rep. John Hall in New York’s 19th district.
“On the Hayworth campaign, a core group of 135 people made over 40,000 calls,” says Beeson. FLS Connect was able to make this happen by allowing committed volunteers to make outreach calls from home through a system he calls “Volunteer Connect.” “The Volunteer Connect system can take you through a survey and [a volunteer can] upload [the results] to a voter data file in real time,” he says. “The Hayworth campaign used it fantastically.”
Hayworth was not the first to use such a system. The Obama campaign employed a similar system in 2008. And, in the Massachusetts special Senate election earlier this year, Scott Brown’s campaign was able to direct over 150,000 phone calls into the state from all over the country. Volunteer Connect can transform an enthusiastic but idle voter in a district without a competitive race into a key GOTV operative in any state or district in the country.
Another way to turn enthusiastic voters into an efficient campaigning force is the ever evolving “walk book.” The “walk book” is a map of a portion of a district directing volunteers where to knock on doors and marshal votes. This practice is perhaps as old as the American political system, and there is no better way to get people to the polls than a conversation with a neighbor (perhaps outmatched only by direct contact with a candidate). Beeson says that mobile technology has made the “walk book” accessible to all and functionally more relevant.
“[In 2004] we were printing out Google maps and drawing areas with a highlighter,” remembered Beeson. “It wasn’t very efficient.” American Crossroads PAC, a conservative political action committee affiliated with former President Bush advisor Karl Rove, was instrumental in utilizing new technology to optimize the “walk book.”
“The worst thing you could do is have a walk program unorganized,” says Beeson. “American Crossroads sent iPads out to Colorado and Nevada and volunteers would walk door to door with an iPad application that they could walk and follow in real time.” He says it will be some time before every volunteer can follow along with an iPad, uploading data to headquarters as quickly as they gather it, but that day is fast approaching.
Democrats are arming their canvassers with technological aids as well. FLS Connect's Katrina Krystowski says that Organizing for America employed a similar optimized “walk book” system and achieved results not unlike those of American Crossroads.
What are the implications for 2012? “I think you will see non-target states getting involved in target state races,” says Beeson, predicting that in the 15 to 17 states with closely fought presidential and senatorial contests, individuals from at least 30 states will play a major campaign role.
“In the old days, we bussed in deployment [to rally potential voters],” says Beeson. “Not anymore. We will see participation all over the country, [with volunteers] making calls into target states.” While these technological developments have dramatic potential, it is still ordinary individuals going to the polls and knocking on doors that make or break a campaign. To that end, new technology has empowered the voter in ways that were previously impossible. “I think the level of volunteer participation will be exponentially higher [in 2012], higher than any seen before,” Beeson predicts.
Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org