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Webocracy

Election 2004 is history, but its groundbreaking use of information technology transformed the world of political campaigns. The candidates turned to the Internet for support.

More than 1 million people throughout the United States can proudly say they helped President George W. Bush win re-election last fall—and some can boast that they never even left their living rooms.

As Bush, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and independent candidate Ralph Nader campaigned throughout the country, debating the war in Iraq and domestic issues, their IT teams created Web sites that brought the voters along on the campaign trail. "A candidate's Web site is the front door to his or her campaign—the office on Main Street," says Steven Schneider, co-founder of PoliticalWeb.info, a project that tracks how the Internet affects campaigns.

Bush, who narrowly edged Kerry, used his Web site to recruit 1.3 million volunteers and to e-mail more than 6 million citizens about his position on the issues.

"We gave people the tools they needed to spread the president's message," says Chuck DeFeo, e-campaign manager for the Bush re-election team. "The goal was to turn passive supporters into active volunteers."

The supporters who visited www.GeorgeWBush.com were greeted with several options that were aimed at re-electing the chief executive.

After joining the e-mail list, Web visitors could take several different steps online to help re-elect Bush, ranging from volunteering to representing special-interest groups to throwing local re-election parties.

If someone agreed to throw a Bush party, the Web site automatically generated a list of available local venues, names of supporters in the area who might attend and invitations with directions to the party. The campaign provided some party-givers with videoconference equipment to let the president and first lady make virtual guest appearances.

The features were a result of integrated systems customized for the Bush campaign, DeFeo says. The systems use sophisticated databases, e-mail, online chat and other Web features to give volunteers the flexibility to participate at their convenience in their own homes.

As a result, massive citizen databases were created for Democrat, Republican and independent candidates who were able to reach voters directly instead of solely relying on traditional media events.

Building an Online Community

Kerry's site, www.JohnKerry.com, also used sophisticated IT to connect with voters. "From the beginning, our approach focused around building an online community that would be an integral part of the campaign," says Josh Ross, director of Internet strategy and operations for the Kerry campaign.

"The Web has changed the way campaigns function, in that it has enabled a campaign to have a direct and immediate conversation with its supporter base," Ross says. "It has allowed people who are supporters to self-identify and approach the campaign directly, greatly reducing the obstacles to participation voters once had."

The Kerry campaign used its e-mail list to persuade voters to write letters to the editor, call into radio shows and participate in online polls—particularly after the presidential debates. In states that permitted early voting, the campaign
e-mailed instructions and provided information for each state's voting process.

The Web site was also a moneymaking machine. In the last few days before the Democratic convention, Kerry raised $9 million through his Web site.

Given the critical role of the Web operation, the Kerry campaign made sure that the site was both sturdy and secure, Ross says. Affordable hardware, proven open-source software
and intelligent load balancing provided the sturdiness, while peer review and daily vigilance strengthened its security.

Pounding the Pavement—With a Twist

The Web wasn't the only technology that had a profound effect on the campaign. Traditional footwork was combined with systems that tied together various campaign channels. While campaign workers knocked on doors and handed out
pamphlets, they also helped create detailed databases wired directly to campaign headquarters. The work on the street and the technology helped the campaigns create an Election Day game plan by taking the pulse of voters and learning of the issues that concerned them.

For instance, the Bush campaign e-mailed volunteers in key battleground states and asked them to visit 10 neighbors and explain why they should vote to re-elect the president. The e-mails included maps, walking directions and time estimates to get from house to house."We used the Internet to help get our message out," says Republican National Committee spokeswoman Christine Iverson.

Kerry campaign workers used the Web to recruit supporters from Democrat strongholds for road trips in which they tried to sway voters in nearby battleground states.

The integration of technology into campaigning illustrates how much the election season has changed. In 1996 and 2000, campaign Web sites were informational. Today, they must be interactive, DeFeo says.

DeFeo studied online channels of various industries to help him develop ideas for Bush's site. His preparation helped keep voters engaged until Election Day because they were seeing new features consistently unveiled on the Web site.

Campaign Web sites for presidential candidates Bush, Kerry and Nader were all used effectively to mobilize supporters, PoliticalWeb.info' down any time soon, Schneider predicts.

"Candidates do everything but kiss babies on the Web," he says. "Maybe by 2012, they'll figure out a way to do that, too—the virtual kiss."

Grassroots Action Meets IT Muscle

The history books will undoubtedly have much to say about the first U.S. presidential campaign of the 21st century.

Mobile technology, the Web and online communications tools transformed politics by bringing the public along on the campaign trail and taking electioneering to grassroots America. As the candidates duked it out in the public spotlight, their IT teams raced behind the scenes to pioneer the use of new technology advances to keep their candidate ahead of the competition. While the campaign players focused squarely on the 2004 race, a legacy was being built for future generations.

The Bush campaign's Web site was responsible for boosting the number of active volunteers, according to DeFeo. The campaign boasted an e-mail list of more than 6 million recipients—1.3 million of whom signed on as volunteers.

The moment visitors entered the www.GeorgeWBush.com site, they were asked to join the e-mail list. After visitors signed up, the online application presented them with a personalized action center, and each step they took to help re-elect the president raised the level on their action bar.

They could, for example, volunteer to represent special-interest groups, invite 10 friends to sign up for Bush's e-mail newsletter or throw a local Bush re-election party. The site was customized to aid them in their choice of efforts. (See sidebar on p. 52.)

"A highly developed Web site is a must-have for a primary candidate to be taken seriously today," says PoliticalWeb's Schneider.

BACKSTAGE AT THE CONVENTIONS

TECHNOLOGY WAS THE EPICENTER OF THE REPUBLICAN AND DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL CONVENTIONS.

REPUBLICANS

Standing on the arena floor of New York City's Madison Square Garden, scanning the empty rows of seats, Max Everett took a deep breath. "I break into a cold sweat when I walk into the Garden," he said in July, one month before the 2004 Republican National Convention.

As convention technology director, Everett, along with his Democratic counterpart, was making history by building a technology infrastructure that was unprecedented in presidential conventions.

"A lot of us considered 2000 the first wired convention," Everett said. Then, the fact that some people had Internet access was a big deal. "Now, everyone takes it for granted."

Everett's dual mission was to keep the networks running and to ensure that Republicans could get their message out, via phone, e-mail and the Internet. Obviously, it worked, even though Everett's team had only a month and a half to transform the empty arena into a high-tech hub.

That meant boosting the amount of electricity, running thousands of feet of fiber, connecting more than 400 Voice over IP (VoIP) phones, setting up 250 PCs (in addition to the 200 PCs at convention headquarters) and installing broadband access. Convention staffers were equipped with BlackBerry devices that fed them information about the 5,000 delegates as they mingled throughout the crowd.

The keys to accomplishing such a massive task on an incredibly tight timeline were communication and flexibility, according to Everett. Daily five-minute meetings kept the various convention teams up to date on plans. Once the technology infrastructure was in place, Everett had about eight days to test all the systems.

Everett wanted to provide more wireless connectivity at the convention, but requirements from the Secret Service and the New York Police Department limited his options. "I never had the expectation that [wireless] was a do-or-die thing for us," he said.

The press played a key role in helping Everett achieve his mission. Madison Square Garden housed about 10,000 media, and another 5,000 set up shop across the street at the James A. Farley Post Office, which consisted of about 200,000 square feet of convention space equipped with high-speed Internet access, VoIP phones and a print shop.

Everett, who worked on President Bush's 2000 campaign and has spent the last three years working in the administration, gave his family and friends ample warning that he wouldn't have any free time—not even to sleep—during the convention.

"The unique challenge of building something this big in this kind of timeframe only comes around every four years," he said. "For IT folks, it's kind of like going to the Super Bowl."

~Melissa Solomon

DEMOCRATS

As the saying goes, it's always something, and at the 2004 Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Boston, that something was a backed-up print queue in the event's media center.

Convention Technology Director Chris Gruin built his network around an Internet backbone with redundant critical servers. He also built secure parallel user environments to support convention insiders and attendees. Even so, heading into the main event, Gruin knew something would throw him a curve.

"You can try to anticipate how people will use all this technology and how people will hit the network, but you can't know for sure until you go live," Gruin said. "Then you've got to be able to work on the fly."

Typically, a T-1 provides plenty of bandwidth for 60 users on a local area network (LAN), but when those 60 users got cranking on their work, "the printer queues were overwhelming the circuit," Gruin reported. Knowing that the next three days would be even busier, he and his staff put a LAN inside the media center—solely for print and file services—and had it operational for day two.

By expecting the unexpected, Gruin managed to ward off what could have been a major trouble spot. He planned for heavy Web traffic on the DNC's site during the convention, and he arranged for more bandwidth on demand just in case. During the convention, the Web site got 70 million hits and served a total of 6 terabytes of data. At its peak, the site pumped out between 1 and 2 gigabytes of data per second.

"We started with a 1GB limit, and we quickly saw that we were going to exceed it," Gruin recalled. "It's amazing the volume of information the outside world wants from us."

Gruin knew that better than most. He was IT chief for the Democrats' 2000 national convention in Los Angeles. For that event, all he needed were two DS-3 lines with multiple interconnected LANs.

This time, with almost triple the number of users and nearly 1,000 networked devices, Gruin deployed 2,000 switch ports and 7,200 routers.

Voice over IP (VoIP) phones took up the slack wherever local phone service coverage was unavailable, as well as in the office pod behind the main podium, where programmable phones were needed.

Yet, the greatest triumph for Gruin and his staff might have come with the successful implementation of the convention's wireless network. They faced the daunting task of trying to accommodate secure wireless usage in a space with lots of open area and concrete walls, while also competing with radio traffic on the airwaves.

Overall, Gruin was pleased with the results. "We put together a $70 million startup in four months," he pointed out. "It's a relief when you realize that everything is working."

~Michael Meehan

Dec 31 2009

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