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Exploring the Tech Behind a Political Campaign

It’s no secret that the cornerstone of President Barack Obama’s presidential election victories was his campaign’s adept use of social media and technology. The campaign team leveraged the power of mainstream social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and reinforced them with extensive testing and market research tools.

But that, of course, was a national campaign. However, the Obama campaign’s strategy and those very same social networks are arguably even more critical at the city level, where a candidate’s personal connection with voters could be the deciding factor in his or her success. Additionally, smaller campaigns are operating on a far more limited budget. This means that an even greater value is placed upon technology, social media, and manpower.

How Online Supports On-The-Ground

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flickr.com/cowenforsyracuse

For an extremely relevant case study, look no further than Syracuse, New York. Dan Cowen, a Syracuse resident and Syracuse University senior, is currently running for a Councilor At-Large seat. He has assembled a skilled campaign team to support his efforts, and together, they’re engaging the community, both in-person and online, to share Dan’s vision and ideas for moving Syracuse forward. 

“Since Dan is a young candidate and he’s pushing against the machine politics of the city, we are understandably a low-funded campaign at this stage,” said Christopher Jennison, a 2012 SU graduate and campaign manager for Cowen for Syracuse. “We’ve been leveraging social media to promote Dan’s ideas for the city and increase his name awareness, and coupling posts on those channels with Facebook ads to increase the campaign’s reach.”

As other, larger campaigns have demonstrated, when it comes to social media, voters are paying attention. According to a recent Pew Research report, 60 percent of adults use social networking, and two thirds of them have conducted political activity on those channels. “We’re hoping to latch onto that participation to raise Dan’s profile in the city in the short term,” Jennison said.

Collaboration, Organization, and Outreach

Among the other tools the Cowen for Syracuse team is using is NationBuilder. This community organizing platform allows campaigns to create a website, compile lists of supporters, community members, and donors, assign tasks to campaign team members, and more.

“Nationbuilder has provided us with an invaluable, holistic approach for building Dan’s campaign. Above all, it is incredibly cost-effective. The platform allows us to manage everything from donor lists contributions to retweets on Twitter, and everything in-between,” said Andrew Bauer, communications director for the campaign. “Without Nationbuilder, we would have to combine a dozen different platforms at almost ten times the price.”

Cowen for Syracuse is also using BaseCamp, a web-based project management tool used by corporations, startups, non-profits, and political campaigns alike. The program, created by software company 37 Signals, helps organizations manage their employees or team members, and aids in developing plans, budgets, and reports.

“We have a team that’s very mobile and geographically spread out,” Bauer said. “BaseCamp makes it easier for us to feel like we’re all in one spot and work efficiently together.”

To effectively handle phone calls from constituents, press, and others who are interested in learning more about the Cowen for Syracuse campaign, the team is using RingCentral, a cloud phone system. The platform allows each campaign team member to have his or her own extension, in addition to main numbers for general and press inquiries.

“There are a ton of options out there when it comes to choosing a cloud-based voice over IP provider,” said Bauer. “For us, RingCentral provides the best set of features and flexibility within our budget.”

Tracking the Conversation

In addition to these tools, the campaign uses Mention.net, a free online service that allows organizations to create real-time alerts for web or social media mentions of their name or names of relevant stakeholders and competitors. The service allows the campaign team to respond to questions and comments efficiently. “Our strategy is to be as responsive as possible to potential constituents, but also to those who are far more knowledgeable about urban reform and city redevelopment,” Jennison explained.

This technology supports the campaign’s mission to make government accessible and engaging for citizens. “We’re working to improve government service through being as transparent as possible, involving as many citizens as possible in civics, and make governing far more collaborative,” Jennison said. “While Dan’s obviously limited in how much of that he can really do as a candidate, our aim for the campaign is to be as open and engaging as possible.”

Want to join the Cowen for Syracuse efforts and get involved in local government? Visit http://www.cowenforsyracuse.org/get_involved for details on how to join the team.

Chelsea Orcutt

Chelsea is the community coordinator at the iSchool, and a senior studying public relations and political science. She is interested in tech, graphic design, and non-profits. Chelsea is the co-founder of She's the First*{Syracuse}, the SU branch of a national non-profit devoted to girls' education in the developing world. Tweet her @ChelseaOrcutt.

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