President Obama's re-election was largely a result of unprecedented use of data to mobilize and empower grass-roots volunteers, who in turn had a huge impact in the handful of states where the election was decided, according to a political operative who worked in Obama's Chicago campaign headquarters.
Jonathan Wright, who worked as a field director for an Illinois congressional campaign and with the Obama operation, gave Wichita State University students an insider's look at the Obama campaign during a speech to professor Mel Kahn's political science class on Tuesday.
Wright said the re-election effort actually began within days of Obama winning the presidency in 2008 and continued straight through to Nov. 6 of this year.
"They retooled," he said. "They figured out what they did right, and then they went and made it better."
Early on, campaign strategists identified nine states where they believed the election would be won or lost, and concentrated their campaign efforts on targeting those states' voters, Wright said. Of those nine swing states, Obama lost only one: North Carolina.
Volunteers were crucial and the campaign spent a great deal of time and effort identifying, recruiting and motivating them, he said.
In addition to the near-saturation campaign advertising by both sides in the swing states, "They (campaign strategists) knew they had to talk to people door to door," Wright said. "The highest rate of swaying the voter to vote for a candidate is person to person."
While the volunteers were important in persuading voters to go to the polls and cast their votes for Obama, they were backed up by the campaign's mammoth database operation, which advised them on which homes to go to and what to say when they got there.
Volunteers at the neighborhood level in the swing states could log into the database and find out publicly available information such as party registration and patterns of voting. That basic information was augmented with data gleaned from social-networking sites, Wright said.
Each voter contact generated more information that was uploaded on a daily basis by the volunteers. A voter who expressed an interest in a particular issue could then be targeted for a follow-up contact by someone versed in the president's position on that issue.
To augment the local efforts, the campaign identified supporters in less competitive states who would volunteer time to travel to and walk precincts in a swing state or if the distance was too great, to call swing-state voters from home.
"Alaska was not voting for Obama," Wright said. "But hundreds of people in Alaska volunteered for the campaign, and it had an effect."
Wright said even as he worked in the effort, he was awed by it.
"It was a grassroots campaign like no other this country has ever seen," Wright said.