Politics
3:35 pm
Thu November 1, 2012

Mobile Apps A Digital Take On Political Canvassing

Originally published on Thu November 1, 2012 4:42 pm

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Canvassing has long been a part of the political process. But now, new social networking technologies are changing how people go door-knocking. Mobile apps with integrated voter registration rolls make it possible to collect and react to voter sentiment instantly. And a new Facebook tool enables volunteers to evangelize for their candidates like never before.

From member station KQED in San Francisco, Aarti Shahani reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPPING)

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Local campaign director Ariel Kelley is sitting at a neighborhood cafe in San Francisco's Richmond District. Tapping the floor with her three-inch heels, Kelley monitors her door-knocking team from a website on her MacBook.

ARIEL KELLEY: I get to see in real-time exactly where they are, using the GPS on the cell phone that they're holding. This is Charlie's territory right here.

SHAHANI: Kelley traces Charlie's every move on Anza and Balboa Streets. She sees the name, age, and party of the targeted voter and the exact time - down to the microsecond - of Charlie's visit. His green dot turns into a red checkmark.

Kelley clicks over to a spreadsheet that tracks voter responses to Charlie's survey of ballot measures and candidates.

KELLEY: So if we're seeing a trend that people all of a sudden aren't supporting our candidate, or there's a strong feeling about a particular issue, we can then adapt based on that information.

NICCO MELE: If I was going to be radical, I'd say that polling is eventually going to disappear, because you're simply not going to need to sample anymore. You'll have such immediate house-by-house data based on digital reporting.

SHAHANI: Nicco Mele is a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School. The door-knocking app helps candidates solve the historic problem of losing ground just because their canvassers didn't have enough time to tally paper logs. Mele wonders which mobile technologies, if any, revamp the election toolkit enough to change outcomes.

MELE: Just like Kennedy put on makeup to go on television to debate Richard Nixon and had a real impact, the candidates and the party that figures out how to use social media and emerging technologies to their advantage will win.

SHAHANI: The San Francisco cottage industry that's grown during the 2012 election cycle is already cashing in. Ralph Garvin is the Stanford-trained computer scientist who designed the door-knocking app.

RALPH GARVIN: Kind of funny, huh, that when you save people, like hundreds of hours of work, that has dollar value associated with it.

SHAHANI: Organizer, that's Garvin's start-up, and others like one called Votizen, have raised millions from venture capitalists with the idea that micro-messaging can one day overtake mass media.

GARVIN: You can go to the door and show someone a video that is tailored to that person's demographic. The more I can send a message to you, that is about you, the higher chance I have of resonating with people that care about the issues that I care about.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

ERIC SWALWELL CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE: Hi, I'm Eric Swalwell. I'm running for the U.S. Congress. And running against 40-year incumbent Pete Stark.

SHAHANI: Candidate Swalwell is standing at a suburban doorway, which his iPhone app told him to visit. The 31-year-old is among a pool of new candidates nationwide using technology to tackle better-known incumbents.

CANDIDATE: I think Congress is broken and you deserve new energy and ideas. And...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hopefully, if you get in, you'll continue doing what you say you're going to do because I'm noting it.

SHAHANI: Swalwell logs the elderly voter as a yes on his phone and walks off to the next address.

CANDIDATE: We can track the higher performing voters, but not to tell us if they're home. That would be nice. A little intrusive, but nice.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAHANI: To get in the door, figuratively speaking, Swalwell's team is also using a custom-made Facebook app.

DAVID BRUNS: As you progress through here, it gives you points.

SHAHANI: Volunteer David Bruns logs in to scour his social network and add friends in the district to a centralized campaign database. Bruns clicks another icon to post a Swalwell article to his wall. A little white box turns volunteering into a game by rewarding Bruns for each personalized message.

Does that really work for you? Do you care how many points you have?

BRUNS: I don't want to be last. Somebody else that was on here was Otto that had 2,000 points or something along those lines.

SHAHANI: I think he actually has something like 7,000 points.

(LAUGHTER)

BRUNS: Sorry.

(LAUGHTER)

BRUNS: OK, 7,000 points. I have a lot to do, I guess.

SHAHANI: Bruns virtually campaigns on the way to work and between meetings.

BRUNS: As the kind of underdog in the race, he doesn't have as much name recognition. He hasn't been in the Congress for 40 years. And so, I can put a little bit of that trust that my friends have with me into them with Eric.

SHAHANI: Bruns now has friends who've never met Swalwell referring to Eric on a first-name basis. The question is whether that online chumminess can trump a four-decade incumbent.

For NPR News, I'm Aarti Shahani in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.