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Legacy Content / ONLINE EXCLUSIVE

Obama's 'Project Houdini' Revealed

After Early Stumble, Ambitious Voter-Targeting Program Helped Streamline Get-Out-The-Vote Effort

November 10, 2008

New details are emerging about the innovative "Project Houdini", a centerpiece of Barack Obama's aggressive get-out-the-vote operation, and how it worked -- and didn't work -- on Nov. 4.

Houdini was one of the new technological tricks up Obama's sleeve on Election Day. As voters signed in to cast their ballots, volunteers matched them to a precinct roster on which each voter was assigned a four-digit code. Volunteers were expected to dial that code into a national campaign hot line throughout the day to report who had voted. Those names then crossed off the campaign's list of voters they needed to turn out.

"We do not expect you to record every single voter, but every voter you report will translate into one less door we have to knock on and one less phone call we have to make," explained the manual that the Obama campaign distributed to volunteers in Pennsylvania.

 

But on Election Day, Houdini pulled its own vanishing act: Deluged with calls, the hot line crashed early in the morning, according to a high-level source within the campaign. The campaign quickly activated a patchwork of backup plans, instructing volunteers to submit codes with their BlackBerries or call field offices, where codes were entered manually through a special Web site. In some precincts, runners were deployed to keep the Houdini effort afloat. The hot line was up and running by 11 a.m. central time, but the campaign stuck with their makeshift reporting procedures for the rest of the day.

While the hot line was too overwhelmed to be of much use, the source said the program itself still proved a smashing success. Using the submitted codes, the campaign was able to clean 1.6 million voters from the call lists they distributed to canvassers that afternoon, making those lists 25 percent shorter on average.

In Indiana, Houdini was especially critical: Volunteers reported so many voter codes that the campaign was able to cut the afternoon call list in half, the source said. Obama eventually won the Hoosier State by just 25,000 votes.

Of course, the Houdini program had its limits, not least of which was that it depended on volunteers staying inside polling stations to record voter names, which not every state allows. Lags in reporting meant canvassers still ended up contacting some voters who had cast their ballots after the call list was revised and distributed in the afternoon. And the hot line's problems proved that as campaigns become more tech-savvy, low-tech backup plans become increasingly important.

Polls confirm that the Obama get-out-the-vote team out-hustled John McCain in the closing days of the race. Twenty-eight percent of likely voters in a Nov. 3 ABC News/Washington Post poll said the Obama campaign had contacted them in the past week, compared with 22 percent for McCain.

In swing states where McCain had less robust field operations, that disparity was even wider. In Virginia, 50 percent of voters told exit pollsters that the Obama campaign contacted them over the course of the general election, while 38 percent said the same about the McCain team. In Indiana, Obama reached 37 percent of voters to McCain's 22 percent.

Obama's organizational advantage might have helped drive a 2.6 percent increase [PDF] in Democratic turnout over 2004. Republican turnout, meanwhile, dipped by 1.3 percentage points.

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