by Ted Jou
Barack Obama won an historic victory in the 2008 Presidential election by inspiring Americans with a message of hope and change. Behind the man, however, was a network of volunteers and staff that used the internet and other technology more effectively than any campaign in history. It should be no surprise that several Magnet alumni played a big part in this movement, including three alumni from the class of 1999 who gave a year of their lives to the cause.
On February 10, 2007, Barack Obama announced that he would be running for President of the United States. The next day, James Hansen and Scott Safranek attended a small meeting of volunteers in West Los Angeles. Over the course of the next few months, James and Scott wrote essays, registered voters, and became part of the leadership of LA Grassroots for Obama. When the Obama Campaign arrived in the fall of 2007, their grassroots organization handed its volunteers to the formal campaign organization, and James and Scott found themselves at the center of the Democratic Primary race in Southern California.
James and Scott had just become roommates in Los Angeles when they started volunteering for Obama, but they were old friends from the Magnet Program and were two of the record-breaking six Intel Science Talent Search Finalists in 1999. Scott was a math prodigy, even by the standards of the Magnet. He took Analysis II as freshman, and he was a member of several Montgomery County ARML teams finishing in the top 3. After graduating from the Magnet, he attended Columbia University, and then became a professional poker player, living in Atlantic City, Las Vegas, and eventually Los Angeles, where he reunited with James.
James didn't learn Calculus in middle school, but he may have gotten a more well-rounded education from the Humanities Magnet at Eastern. He and Scott co-founded the Philosophy Club at Blair, and James was a drummer for the award-winning Blair Jazz Band. By senior year, however, James had found a passion for theoretical physics, and he went on to Caltech, where he graduated with a degree in Mathematics. He is now a graduate student in the Physics Department at UCLA, where he is set to earn his PhD this spring.
James and Scott organized in Los Angeles through 2007, but as the primaries drew closer, the Obama Campaign began asking for volunteers to travel to battleground states. James couldn't leave his studies, but Scott hit the road, driving up I-15 to Las Vegas for the Nevada Caucuses.
While James and Scott were getting involved on the west coast, another member of the Class of 1999, Craig Erdrich, began volunteering on the east coast. This was no surprise to anyone, since Craig was involved in politics even as a freshman at Blair, serving as a student representative to Montgomery County's Advisory Committee on Gifted and Talented Education. He was later elected President of the Montgomery County Region of the Maryland Association of Student Councils, and he went to Duke University, where he graduated with degrees in Economics and Political Science. After college, he spent two years teaching English in Japan, and then returned to the DC area to work as an economic consultant. In the fall of 2007, he quit his job to join the Obama campaign, and he was sent to South Carolina to work door-to-door as a volunteer field organizer.
As the primary season began, Obama won the Iowa Caucuses but lost the New Hampshire Primary. In the Nevada caucuses on January 19th, Scott could claim a win for Obama in the delegate count, but Clinton won the popular vote. A week later in South Carolina, Craig was able to celebrate as Obama won landslide victory. The campaign marched forward, however, as Scott headed to New Mexico while Craig came back home to Maryland.
By this time, James had been named a Regional Field Organizer for West Los Angeles in the California Primary Campaign. On Super Tuesday, February 5, both James and Scott were disappointed as Hillary Clinton won the California primaries and the New Mexico Caucuses by the narrowest of margins. Obama still led the delegate count, however, and the fight was only just beginning.
Craig was hard at work trying to deliver Montgomery County for Obama, working as a field organizer in the campaign headquarters in downtown Silver Spring. On an icy winter day on February 12th, he coordinated phone banks and volunteers to get out the vote in White Oak. Obama won Maryland, DC, and Virginia that day in the middle of a streak of ten straight primary wins that helped him build a delegate lead that he would never relinquish. There was little rest for the weary, however, as Scott traveled east to Texas, and Craig went north to Ohio.
The Ohio primaries proved difficult for Obama, as Clinton won a small victory. Texas was split, as Clinton took the primary while Obama won the caucus. The fight continued, but the Obama campaign had started to raise some money, so after several months of working without pay or for small stipends, Scott and Craig finally became full-time paid organizers. Craig's next stop was North Carolina, while Scott went to Oregon.
Obama won both Oregon and North Carolina, and an Obama victory was finally secure. The campaign was in desperate need of data managers who could manage the large voter file databases that were critical to the campaign's efforts to target voters and deploy their volunteers efficiently. As campaign veterans with more technical experience than most, Scott and Craig were chosen to participate in a special training program that the campaign called Obama Data Camp in Portland, Oregon.
Scott worked in Richmond and Craig in Raleigh. They had to travel around their states training field workers, and they each had their own staffs of deputies, fellows, and volunteers. Over the course of several months, Scott and Craig built databases of potential volunteers, likely voters, and undecided voters. They analyzed the data to target certain age groups, income groups, or geographic areas. They watched the numbers carefully, and as Election Day drew near, they knew the race would be very close. The campaign concentrated its efforts on two main categories: (1) Persuasion targets were likely voters who volunteers needed to convince to support Obama; (2) Sporadic voters were members of demographic categories who were likely to support Obama but had not voted in recent elections. Scott developed a strategy to print this information at the top of information sheets that were given to field organizers so that volunteers working door-to-door or making phone calls would know whether they should try to persuade the voters towards Obama or if they just needed to make sure the sporadic voters turned out on election day. In Virginia, the polls were turning Obama's way, and the campaign adopted an all-out strategy with a broad base of persuasion targets. In North Carolina, however, the polls were much closer, so the campaign eschewed persuasion targets and focused on increasing turnout among sporadic voters in the African-American community and college students. Implementing these strategies required careful management of the voter files, and both Scott and Craig worked tirelessly to collect, analyze, and distribute information to the campaign.
When the polls closed on November 4th, Virginia and North Carolina remained undecided. The networks called Virginia for Obama late in the evening, and when the polls closed on the west coast and California's electoral votes were added, the networks called the election for Obama. North Carolina was called for Obama two days later by the slimmest of margins. After an up-and-down primary season with tough wins and heartbreaking losses, Scott, James, and Craig saw each of their states go to Obama in the general election. For their efforts, they each received tickets to the inauguration ceremonies and inaugural balls, and they all returned to DC to see the fruits of their labor. It was an election won on big issues like Iraq, the economy, and health care. But it was also an election won with phone calls and field organizing and door-to-door volunteers ... and with data. These three alumni of the Magnet Class of 1999 played no small part in making that happen.