Obama Tries New Tactics To Get Out Vote in Iowa

The Post's Shailagh Murray assesses the closing days of Barack Obama's Iowa campaign, noting that the senator is going 'a little soft, a little hard.' Video by Ed O'Keefe/washingtonpost.com
By Peter Slevin and Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, December 31, 2007

DES MOINES -- In Sen. Barack Obama's Iowa headquarters, young staff members sit at computers, analyzing online voter data and targeting potential backers. They zip one e-mail to an undecided voter and zap a different message to a firm supporter.

Depending on the voter, they follow with Facebook reminders, telephone calls, text messages and, most important, house visits. The effort will culminate in what state director Steve Hildebrand calls "the largest grass-roots volunteer operation that Iowa has ever seen."

Whether Hildebrand's boast proves true on Thursday, Obama's campaign has taken a markedly different approach to identifying its supporters and getting them to the caucuses than those of his two main opponents, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and former senator John Edwards of North Carolina.

With turnout likely to be decisive in a Democratic race that pollsters call a three-way tie, Obama (Ill.) has built an Election Day operation that combines an apparent edge in technology with the tried-and-true grunt work of a traditional Iowa campaign. Edwards and Clinton have also assembled formidable ground operations, with outside help from labor unions and political interest groups.

Edwards, who has been campaigning virtually nonstop since finishing second here four years ago, is depending on caucus veterans. Strategists for Obama and Clinton are counting on a record turnout, which means inducing caucus neophytes to gather on a cold January night.

The chances appear good that more Democrats will participate than ever before.

"It's more money, more staff, more TV, more of everything," said Jean Hessburg, a former executive director of Iowa's Democratic Party. "We had a record turnout in 2004. I'm sure we'll break it in 2008."

Obama began organizing in Iowa by deploying more staff members earlier to more counties and by building tracking mechanisms to identify and retain supporters. For example, the campaign mines data gathered online: Which petitions did people sign on the campaign Web site? Which e-mails have they answered?

If the Internet is like a big grocery store, Obama's aides made sure he appeared on every aisle. As some campaign workers built mailing lists and telephone trees according to political, professional and personal interests, others created the first groups and profiles on sites as varied as Eons, the MySpace for baby boomers, and LinkedIn, a site mostly for white-collar professionals.

They also used BlackPlanet.com, MiGente.com, AsianAve.com and GLEE.com -- the MySpace and Facebook for, respectively, the African American, Latino, Asian and gay online communities. They have posted more than 350 videos on his YouTube channel, twice as many as Clinton, and his videos have been viewed nearly twice as often as hers. Obama has more MySpace friends than any other Democratic candidate, and he lists more Facebook supporters than all other Democrats combined.

Looking ahead to caucus day, the campaign is setting up a "catch-all queue," in which caucus-goers could get an answer within minutes after texting a question such as "Where's my precinct in Des Moines?"

Four years ago, another Democrat, former Vermont governor Howard Dean, came into the Iowa caucuses as "the Internet candidate" and finished third, all but ending his candidacy. Obama's campaign flatly rejects that comparison, arguing that today's Web is vastly different, that Iowa is much more wired, that they have learned that electronic touches are only part of the picture.

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