Obama campaign hopes to capture buzz in energized New Hampshire

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Story highlights

  • President Obama's campaign is testing its organization in New Hampshire
  • OFA has maintained contact with many of Obama's core supporters from 2008 campaign
  • New Hampshire branch of Obama for America has 7 offices across the Granite State
While the political world is focused on the Republican primary in New Hampshire on Tuesday, President Barack Obama's re-election campaign is also getting out the vote, quietly testing its organization in what promises to be a key swing state in November.
Just like in Iowa last week, Obama for America plans to use Tuesday as a kind of trial run, a chance to test the strength of the campaign's existing volunteer base and recruit new supporters who might be energized by the state's political mood.
"For us the goal of the primaries is the same as the goal of the caucuses, which is to expand upon the unrivaled organization that we've built this year," OFA press secretary Ben LaBolt told CNN during a recent visit to the campaign's headquarters in downtown Chicago. "And what makes this different from previous re-election campaigns is that the president never let his organization across the country go away."
OFA -- which once stood for Organizing for America before morphing back into the president's re-election effort in early 2011 -- has used its contact lists in an attempt to activate supporters on behalf of nearly every major piece of legislation that Obama has championed since his inauguration. With e-mails and text messages, OFA has maintained almost constant contact with many of its core supporters from the 2008 campaign, and now the campaign must figure out how to turn that digital relationship into success on the ground.
"We need to take opportunities as we have them to test the organization and make sure that we are operating at full speed, that we are doing the things that we need to do, that our people are well-trained and well-engaged and have the tools they need at the grassroots level to engage their communities in meaningful ways," said Michael Slaby, chief integration and innovation officer for OFA.
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Traditionally, campaigns employ field organizers to contact voters in districts across the country and try to engage them on issues important to their community. These organizers may recruit volunteers to make phone calls to undecided voters, knock on doors or hand out flyers in public spaces, all while asking voters what issues will influence their decision in November. Managing the information gathered during this mass-outreach effort can help a campaign decide how best to deploy resources, which often makes the difference between winning and losing.
As the chief technology officer of Obama's 2008 campaign, Slaby is very familiar with the campaign's approach to digital campaigning, but his role this time around is more holistic. Positioned between the deputy campaign managers and OFA's substantial digital team, Slaby's job is to ensure that the information gleaned from contact lists and digital outreach is wholly integrated with the campaign's more traditional field efforts. This means he's often able to force conversations and answer questions that the 2008 campaign didn't have time for as it rapidly expanded throughout the primaries.
However, the specifics of these conversations -- including the ways in which the organization's technology has advanced and exactly how it plans to deploy the information it gathers -- remains a closely guarded secret.
"I have to be very cautious about how I talk about this publicly because there's a lot of secret sauce in how we're using these tools and I'm not terribly interested in helping other people," a campaign official who asked not to be named said of OFA's use of new technology. But the official went on to acknowledge the ongoing need to bridge the gap between digital efforts and more traditional campaign efforts, "This isn't a startup. We don't get more votes for better technology."
To this end, the New Hampshire branch of Obama for America has set up seven offices across the Granite State since opening its doors last April, and LaBolt can quickly rattle off statistics about the group's more traditional organizational successes so far -- which include holding more than 500 grassroots events across the state, 3,200 one-on-one meetings with supporters and outreach to "tens of thousands" of New Hampshire residents.
The advantages of incumbency also allow the president's campaign to commit to a long-term presence in the state, while the eventual Republican nominee is busy worrying about a slew of primaries scattered across the country.
"When Republicans leave the day after [the primary] -- Mitt Romney literally has his Manchester office with a 'for lease' sign in the window right now -- we'll have an unrivaled organization on the ground," LaBolt said about Tuesday's election. "So our goal is to use this as an opportunity to bring new people into the organization."
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The members of the president's re-election team who are directly involved in this recruitment effort are candid about how fortunate they are that the first two states to vote in 2012 also happen to be states central to the campaign's path to 270 electoral votes.
"Iowa is going to be an important state in the fall. New Hampshire is going to be an important state in the fall. That is frankly lucky for us in certain ways," Slaby said. "These are places where we have opportunities to test our organization in early states where the Republicans are having contests, but again the goal is organizational."
In addition to using campaign buzzwords like "grassroots organization" and "community engagement," the Obama campaign's digital team is filled with people who employ technophile terms like "social" as shorthand for wide-ranging social media efforts and "predictive analytics" to describe one area often over-emphasized by colleagues in the big-data community.
Rather than using the information his team collects to try to predict what voters want, Slaby described his efforts as an attempt at "treating people as people" through what some at the campaign are calling "micro-listening."
"The most basic non-nerd description of what we're doing is listen better to people on the ground, in their communities and what they want for the country and what they need from us to help them organize the people around them," Slaby said.
If polling is "macro-listening" where the views of a few are extrapolated to interpret the views of a whole, then OFA's social media strategy is the opposite, where the views of individuals are used to engage them on their terms.
"Clearly we want to predict what our supporters need from us, but what this really is about is listening and interpreting what they're saying because sometimes people -- especially when it comes to technology -- don't always ask for what they need," Slaby said. "It's like [Henry] Ford's famous quote, if I'd built what people wanted I would have built a faster horse. We've got to be careful not to build faster horses. We've got to be careful to predict and anticipate real meaningful needs for people when it comes to technology."
Through Slaby's efforts, the Obama campaign hopes to be able to tailor its relationship with supporters to each individual supporter's desired experience. While test runs in Iowa and New Hampshire are helping to work out the kinks, as the general election heats up the OFA digital team can also use these ongoing social media conversations to determine how various communities are responding to both the president and his eventual opponent.
"We need to get ourselves out of our own heads and listen to what people are telling us," Slaby said. "This is one of the advantages to us being in Chicago -- it gets us away from the D.C. conversation about what people need rather than letting people tell us what they need. And it's easy in headquarters to think we have all the answers. We don't. People will tell us the answers if we ask them and then actually listen."