Taking Our Country [State or City] Back

Note: This post provides summary and analysis of reading assignement for Nicco Mele’s Harvard Kennedy School course – Taking Our Country Back – From MoveOn.org to Obama 2012: Digital Strategy in Political Campaigns

This month as the Massachusetts Democratic Party wound up their caucuses across the state, my coursework at the Kennedy School turned to past presidential campaigns. Recently, we’ve been reading Taking Our Country Back: The Crafting of Networked Politics from Howard Dean to Barack Obama by Daniel Kreiss, a University of North Carolina Screenshot 2014-03-11 13.12.10professor in the School of Journalism. Kreiss’s book details the evolving spectrum of online tools available to presidential political campaigns and analyzes how these tools change presidential campaign (1) volunteer and staff organization, (2) infrastructure, and (3) innovation.

The bulk of the book focuses on two presidential campaigns – Howard Dean’s 2004 run and Barack Obama’s 2008 run – and the online political tools and capacity developed between them. Kreiss did a large amount of ground work to put together his analysis. Conducting over 60 interviews with new media staff, consultants, and volunteers on presidential campaigns. He even volunteered on Obama’s 2008 campaign in California, Texas and Nevada.

Kreiss starts out by mapping the post-Dean campaign career paths of many members of the 2004 digital team. Companies and organizations like Blue State Digital (BSD), Echo Ditto, Democracy for America (DFA), ProgressNow and New Organizing Institute spun out of the tech innovators of the Dean campaign. Many former campaign staff would build these organizations and then take leave to work on the 2008 presidential campaigns of Obama, Clinton and Edwards.

This isn’t a unique occurrence. A Washington Post article describes many staff members from Obama’s 2012 presidential run that transitioned into consulting gigs in between campaigns: “Former White House communications director Anita Dunn works at SKDKnickerbocker, a PR firm that worked on Obama’s 2008 and 2012 bids. Sixteen staffers from the 2012 campaign have joined Blue State Digital, another firm that worked on digital strategy for both campaigns and counts corporations like Google and AT&T as clients.”

Kreiss focuses extensively on the contributions Blue State Digital and others made to improving and streamlining  online data collection and volunteer mobilization platforms available to democratic campaigns between 2004 and 2008. Kreiss describes how BSD helped Howard Dean develop more effective ways of mobilizing previous supporters that they could still contact through the hundreds of thousands of emails collected by the 2004 campaign. Dean and BSD sought to continue to mobilize democratic supporters in a productive way. After the 2004 campaign, Dean and DFA selected 12 local-level candidates called the “Dean Dozen” to support as a way to continue to engage grassroots networks.

With Dean’s quest to keep previous email subscribers engaged, and his continued belief in strong positions and grassroots mobilizing, he decided to run for Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chair in 2005. By aligning with Howard Dean during his run for leadership of the Democratic National Committee, BSD was well positioned to support the development of Dean’s DNC priorities – building a national online voter registry and party organizing platform.


Kreiss tells readers that a better voter information platform was critical to more efficient and effective presidential campaigning on behalf of democratic candidates. Previously, states had disconnected online voter registries with different systems and different information collected. Staffers working on a presidential campaign in one state might need completely new guidance to use a registry for a similar purpose in another state.

The platform the DNC developed – later called VoteBuilder – moved all these distinct voter data collection systems into one online voter database that campaign staff could review and update. While the system would evolve in 2005 and 2006, the Obama campaign benefited from the bridging of  VoteBuilder with another developed DNC tool called PartyBuilder. The Obama campaign then used this evolution to mobilize volunteers and turnout voters through the Neighbor-to-Neighbor volunteer platform. Kreiss explains the importance of the evolution of both tools to the 2008 campaign:

The party took the first steps toward integrating the applications and data of its voter file and electoral organizing platform. Party staffers imagined that this integration would facilitate an unprecedented distributed field operation, enabling supporters to engage in online electoral projects such as canvassing voters and updating the core voter file. During the general election of 2008, volunteers used the system to access the voter file through the Internet and to make canvass calls to priority voters.”

Even though it was created by a former presidential candidate running the national party organization, VoteBuilder has become an invaluable tool for Democrats running for office at the state and local level as well. The Massachusetts Democratic Party describes VoteBuilder by saying it “allows committees to create call sheets, walk lists, and mailing labels using criteria to appropriately target and narrow your searches. Then, you are able to run your own phone banks, organize your own canvasses, send your own mailers, and operate your very own campaign as you see fit.”

Candidates running for any level of office can purchase local or statewide access to the database. When I called (that’s right, I called) the Massachusetts Democratic Party headquarters, they shared that statewide access to VoteBuilder goes for a rate of $5,000 per campaign cycle per candidate. While I’m not sure what other states charge, this seems somewhat reasonable given the potential mobilizing power and efficiency gained for a campaign’s outreach efforts. A friend who volunteered to caucus in 2004 and 2008 for presidential candidates voiced that the platform absolutely increased the ease with which volunteers generated maps and lists for targeting potential voters. Paired with a strong volunteer base – that can also now be garnered online – VoteBuilder offers efficiencies and strength to campaigns that weren’t available a decade ago.


While Kreiss’s book focuses on national races, he does discuss how tools developed for the DNC (VoteBuilder – also known as VAN – and Party Builder) received testing during the races leading up to the 2006 midterm elections on the state level. These midterm elections had a state focus that seem similar to the early caucus-oriented mobilization strategies in presidential races. This state-centered way of applying online platforms to organizing and voter mobilization got me thinking about how other, originally national, online campaign tactics are now the norm in state-level races as well. With that in mind, I turned to a race close to home to see how the tools developed by the Dean Campaign 11 years ago and the DNC data platforms described by Kreiss in his book are being used in Massachusetts in 2014.

I decided to pull up the websites of the five Democratic candidates for Massachusetts governor to review how they are engaging volunteers, garnering email addresses, fundraising and turning out voters through online tactics. I started with their top banner of the campaign websites for Joe Avellone, Don Berwick, Martha CoakleySteve Grossman, and Juliette Kayyem (see below).

(From top to bottom: Steve Grossman, Joseph Avellone, Martha Coakley, Don Berwick, Juliette Kayyem)

In general, each candidate’s website has either five or six tabs in the navigation bar for visitors to explore. Each has an “Issues” tab and a “Contribute” tab – two buckets of content critical for any campaign. Four of the five candidates add  emphasis to the contribute tab by making it larger or highlighting in red. This makes a great deal of sense given the essential nature of online fundraising in today’s campaigns, but 12 years ago this idea was almost non-existent. Aside from fundraising, the sites also provide paths for people to take a more active role in the campaign. Gaining volunteers or supporters is done through several different words – “Join, Volunteer, Take Action, Participate” – but each candidate has this as an option presented. Juliette Kayyem is the only candidate that explicitly has a top tab that recruits volunteers for the caucuses that occurred in February and early March.

In 2002, Kreiss notes that MoveOn.org consulted with the Howard Dean campaign team to apply MoveOn’s email address Screenshot 2014-03-11 13.01.23acquisition strategy for advocacy campaigns to the world of political campaigns.  Both Kreiss and Joe Trippi emphasize that the Dean Campaign catapulted the importance of email acquisition for both mobilizing and fundraising in a presidential race. In this June 2003 screenshot of the Dean Campaign site (right), the email subscription option is prominently shown on the website along with a “Contribute” button and a thermometer with a Dean Meetup Challenge to raise $1 million online. While these may not seem innovative or cutting edge for 2014, they were exceptional in 2003, and the goal to raise $1 million online was virtually unheard of before this campaign cycle. For me,  the reality that these practices are now the norm, not just in national races, underscores the ever-changing world of the Internet all the more striking.

As seen below, email acquisition has become a core component of state-level campaigns through the gubernatorial candidates’ websites. The campaign sites clearly display the sign up for their email list and request a zip code as well.  Even on the “Volunteer” tabs on the sites, people input their contact information and address online and then submit the information to the campaign before staff reach out. The Internet now provides the path to start an interaction with any political campaign. The contact information let’s the campaign leadership responsible for different areas know someone is interested in getting more involved and gives them several methods of reaching out.


Having all of this accessible information on supporters and better platforms that harness mobilizing power is all well and good, but Kreiss helps illustrate how complicated integrating these new pieces into an already huge presidential campaign effort (1) causes tension and (2) disrupts the traditional hierarchy of campaign staff. He criticizes other research saying that scholarship tends to suggest that “technological systems [for campaigns] are far more stable, comprehensive, and planned than they are.” He comments are tied to the shake up a powerful tool like the Internet can bring to the operations of a national effort.

I’ve been struck by participants in the 2004 Howard Dean campaign describe the online approach more as a series of discoveries and revelations than a planned, long-term strategy. This is in part of how new the Internet was in the realm of campaigns. The campaign staff were constantly trying new tactics ­– from digital baseball bats and pictures of Dean eating turkey sandwiches – and then reacting to the grassroots support those tactics generated. The campaign also discovered the power of Meetup.com as local supporters without a connection to the campaign organized their own meetings and efforts to contribute to the campaign. However, Kreiss notes that because these supporters had no official tie to the campaign, there was a substantial challenge in harnessing the energy of potential volunteers and voters in a productive way toward to campaign’s goals. During Dean’s campaign, staff had to run themselves ragged to develop the procedures and online platforms to make this possible during an already chaotic presidential run.

Kreiss describes Dean’s campaign as putting the “Internet as the center of the strategy to exclusion of other [areas],” and John Kerry’s 2004 campaign as putting the Internet “one tier down from the heartbeat of the campaign.” In contrast, the 2008 Obama campaign had a well-planned organization that better integrated online strategy and staff into the overall campaign. Obama’s 2008 campaign staff had the luxury of both the data management and website capacity in place well in advance of primary season. Kreiss shares that within the Obama campaign’s New Media Division, Joe Rospars even made two different Internet branches – one for events and field organizing, the other to handle social media platforms like Facebook.

As I read Kreiss’s analysis, I was struck by the level of preparation needed to blend together both the online and the offline volunteer mobilization strategies on the Obama campaign. For the first time, a presidential campaign had access to effective national voter files, proven email address acquisition tactics, huge fundraising capacity and the potential to manage volunteers and voter registration online. To harness each of these (and more) into a unified campaign plan across 50 states is nothing short of remarkable. And it doesn’t sound easy.

One area of particular challenge for campaigns seems to be how to ensure the volunteers who come to you through online platforms are using their energies toward efforts that help the campaign’s goals. Kreiss notes that:

“Obama’s staffers faced a challenge in the large numbers of supporters who used Facebook and Yahoo! and Google Groups to organize instead of the MyBarackObama platform […] The new media staffers strove to bring these organizational efforts inside the campaign by getting everyone’s email lists and everyone’s activities and everything tracked through [MyBO].”

This gives us a sense for all the different pieces working together that blend both the online and offline efforts of today’s presidential campaigns.

Many campaigns, particularly on the state level, may struggle to integrate all communication in such a centralized way like http://www.mybarackobama.com was able to do. As a volunteer with the Juliette Kayyem campaign this spring, I receive emails through a Google Group managed by the Somerville area director. All communication about canvasing or participating in the previous caucuses comes through this Google Group; however, the Kayyem campaign does have a link on their official website where volunteers commit to a variety of actions, so records of potential volunteers are at least housed in a central database at the campaign.


Finally, I’d like to take some time to reflect on how the once innovative techniques of the Howard Dean campaign are not central to local races as well. It is to be expected that the scale and fundraising capacity of many local campaigns potentially limit the way online platforms and tools are used in smaller races. However, websites and online contact are without a doubt critical to local elections. Candidates have donate buttons, email list sign ups, Facebook accounts and twitter town halls.

The last few weeks, I’ve been keeping a close eye on a particularly striking election case to see how the Internet will play a role. Two weeks ago Jackson, Mississippi’s mayor, Chokwe Lumumba, passed away suddenly after being in office only 8 months. His passing was shocking and saddening to a city that has grown to embrace a leader perceived as outside the norm for a community like Jackson. In the wake of his passing, Jackson also faces the task of electing a new mayor…quickly. On April 8th the city will hold a special election.

This week, candidates have started joining the mayoral race. Three previous candidates for mayor, Mr. Lumumba’s son, and a current city council member had all announced the intention to run by March 11. However, the official website capacity is lagging behind these announcements. Announcements are coming in press conferences in traditional venues and being reported through papers, television and radio. Even Harvey Johnson, the previous mayor who lost his re-election bid, had no mention of the special election on his website as of Tuesday, March 11.

By late in the day on Tuesday, Melvin Priester Jr., a current city council member, was the only candidate to have a live site up for the campaign. The site has three tabs – “Join, Volunteer, and Contribute.”  “Join” allows supporters to receive email updates, while “Volunteer” collects more extensive contact information. Priester’s “Volunteer” tab begs the question of how he plans to mobilize volunteers over the next 30 days to his advantage. Chokwe Lumumba’s son has created a splash page on his father’s previous campaign site, but there are no live links for campaign volunteers or contributions.

The swift nature of the campaign and the delicate nature of the decision to run after Mayor Lumumba’s passing have resulted in limited official campaign websites for mayor of Mississippi’s largest city. It could be argued that candidates haven’t had the time, money or capacity to build their own online messaging platform. However, even those that do have the platform have chosen to not yet use it to broadcast their intention to run. This to me says something interesting about the dynamics of a local, short special election and the Internet’s perceived role.

In a campaign that will last less than a month and coincides with the fragile and tragic passing of a previous officeholder, the Internet and its tools potentially play a lesser role. Fundraising must be done quickly and a more personal contact method may prove to be a more effective in generating resources than candidate’s websites in a geography the size of Jackson.  There will be many important decisions to make for each of these candidates in a short time frame with limited resources.

Regardless, I would predict that each candidate will generate an official website with policy priorities and a path for contributions. How long it will take each candidate to launch the site is yet to be seen. Regardless, the start of an online presence in the special election reflects how far the Internet’s role in campaigns has come.


Daniel Kreiss concludes his book with some valuable reflections on large scale political campaigns. He shares that the success of the 2008 Obama campaign in mobilizing volunteers, voters and financial contributors was a deliberate, hard-fought process that paid dividends but did not come easily.

The Obama campaign’s ability to effectively organize collective action was premised upon years of massive investments of human, technical and organizational resources in developing practices and tools for online campaigning.”

Today, national, state and local campaigns are all reaping the benefits of the efforts of the hard work done a decade ago. The campaign environment has been forever changed by the efforts of the Dean campaign, the companies it sent staff members to, and the Obama campaigns in 2008 and 2012. I’m excited to see what else will come and grateful to Kreiss for so thoroughly cataloging the journey thus far.

Until Next Time,

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