FAIRFAX, Va. — The red and blue T-shirts that Mitt Romney campaign volunteers wear in Virginia feature a digital code that voters can zap with their smart phones to learn more about the Republican presidential hopeful.
The volunteer "data captains" who staff President Barack Obama's 30 re-election offices in Florida process reams of material generated by local phone banks that will be mined by the campaign's organizing teams.
The presidential ground game has gone high-tech, marrying old-school organizing work with innovative digital tools.
Four years after the 2008 Obama campaign revolutionized the use of the Internet for fundraising and communication with supporters, both the Obama and Romney teams are using digital technology to streamline the labor intensive work of mobilizing voters in battleground states such as Virginia and Florida that are expected to decide this contest.
The efforts range from the relatively straightforward — both campaigns have mobile "apps" to engage volunteers — to the more ambitious, like the Obama team's new Dashboard platform designed to help volunteers connect with the campaign both online and in the field.
The ground game is just one piece of a presidential campaign's multi-pronged effort to identify voters and get them to the polls, along with staples such as events, direct mail and advertising on television and radio. And technology can't fully replace the phone banking and door knocking that ultimately make a ground game successful.
Republicans once had the edge on Democrats when it came to micro targeting, with former President George W. Bush's political advisers taking the lead on identifying voters through their activities, television viewing habits and magazine subscriptions. Such techniques helped Bush narrowly defeat Democrat John Kerry in 2004 despite an ambitious field organizing program waged by labor unions and others supporting Kerry's candidacy. Labor unions are expected to help with Obama's field operation this time, and some Republican-leaning independent groups say they, too, will invest in ground-game efforts to help Romney.
The tech-forward Obama team far outpaced John McCain's campaign in the use of technology in 2008, and Republicans continued to lag in subsequent years during Michael Steele's tenure as head of the Republican National Committee. But this year, the Obama and Romney campaigns are both actively pursuing ways digital technology can help them streamline the often cumbersome process of executing a field program and build their databases more quickly to identify and mobilize supporters.
"In a very close election like this one is expected to be, turnout makes a difference and that means the ground game might make a difference," said Chris Arterton, a professor of political management at George Washington University. "We are clearly also in a transition period where people are figuring out how to use digital mobilization and marry that to real, in-person contact and whether it can be used as an effective weapon."
So far, the Obama campaign is far ahead of the Romney team in applying technology to field organizing — from robust state-by-state Facebook pages and Twitter feeds to the Dashboard tool unveiled by the campaign last month.
Stung by criticism for letting its much-vaunted online army all but dissipate after the 2008 election, the Obama team has taken aggressive steps this time to integrate its field and online programs. The Dashboard platform, officials said, is the campaign's most visible effort to treat all volunteer activity as the same, whether it's done from home, in a campaign office or on a street.
Supporters interested in helping the campaign can sign up through Dashboard, where they are assigned by ZIP code to a local team leader. They're then offered a range of volunteer opportunities — from registering voters to going door-to-door to making get-out-the-vote calls. All of those efforts and the data generated are monitored and tabulated by the team leader, who is responsible for all volunteer activity, both online and off, in his or her geographical area.
"Think of Dashboard as an online nationwide field office," Obama field director Jeremy Bird said in a video announcing Dashboard last month, calling it a way to join other volunteers "who have stepped up to register, persuade and turn out the voters in your community."
The Romney team is moving quickly to execute its own digital field program while insisting it's not trying to compete tool-for-tool with the Obama operation.
"We don't define our success by vanity metrics, rather by actionable, defined items that will help us be successful in November," Romney digital director Zac Moffatt said. "Digital should be a platform to make things easier. We don't have to match the Obama folks, we just have five or six things we need our digital program to do."
The Romney team last week instituted a digital ticketing program for campaign events across the country. To attend an event, supporters must furnish their contact information, which the campaign will use to invite them to other events and — more importantly — build a voter list. The Romney campaign also recently adopted the use of Square, a mobile phone payment system developed by Twitter that allows people to swipe credit cards easily using a mobile phone or laptop.
Such tools "are a value proposition for both sides," Moffatt said. "We get to collect more data and have a better conversation with our supporters."
On a recent day in northern Virginia, volunteers were heading to a local county fair dressed in red T-shirts proclaiming "Tell Obama — Keep the Change." But the shirt's real added value was the black geometric pattern called the QR code, allowing the voter direct access to a campaign Web page — and giving the Romney team their contact information — through a single key stroke on a smart phone.
Pete Snyder, a longtime social media marketing executive who chairs the Virginia Victory Fund, a statewide program to assist Romney and other Republican candidates, said improving the campaign's use of technology has been among his top priorities.
"If you look at 2008, there was a real technology gap. We're light years ahead of where we were," Snyder said, saying his goal was to apply technology in a way that would triple the get-out-the-vote program that helped elect Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell in 2009, just a year after Obama became the first Democrat to carry Virginia in a presidential contest since 1964.
"What we've built from scratch is going to be pretty lethal come November," Snyder promised.