Campaigns buy into 'swag factor' as volunteer push

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By BRIAN BAKST, Associated Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Think of them as frequent flier programs for political action. Instead of a free flight, the reward for loyalty to a campaign can be as simple as a T-shirt or a pin — and as special as preferential seating at a rally when the candidate swoops into town.

Do-this-get-that enticements are coming fast and furiously from political campaigns, with candidates from presidential hopefuls on down more closely tying gear or perks to volunteer output and token donations.

"I would call this the swag factor," said Chas Mastin, a technology entrepreneur who helped design a digital application for tracking supporter activity. "How much swag do you need to have to motivate people?"

Particularly in the hotly contested White House race, the campaigns of Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney are intent on mobilizing tens of thousands of people to spend hours of their spare time swaying friends, neighbors and relatives. Few of those activists will land on the campaign payroll, so the giveaways are taking on extra importance.

It comes down to making people feel appreciated and invested, said Patrick Ruffini, the president of a Washington-based tech company who has been a digital adviser to the Republican National Committee and prominent candidates.

"You tend to see a level of activity that exceeds anything that's certainly not tied to some sort of reward," Ruffini said. "That's why you're seeing at the presidential level every other email is 'Have dinner with Obama,' 'Grab a bite with Mitt.'"

Known as "gamification," the appeals are aimed somewhat at the wired generation and take their cues from video games, where players strive to reach higher levels or earn virtual badges proving their prowess. Greater political engagement is the goal.

Some campaigns compile internal leaderboards to encourage repeat participation and friendly competition among campaign regulars angling to outdo their buddies.

"Certainly for volunteers, in addition to their commitment to the president, that's what kind of makes it fun," said Pat Hinker, a "super volunteer" for Obama in Minnesota who figures she devotes the equivalent of a full-time workweek to the Democrat now that she's retired. "That gives you another goal to work for."

The Obama campaign declined to make an official available to discuss the scope of the incumbent's incentive program. Romney's campaign was also guarded, but his digital director, Zac Moffatt, said the premise is simple: "The more you do, the more you deserve to get rewarded."

Earlier this month, Romney political director Rich Beeson pitched supporters on the chance "to help Mitt Romney to the White House without ever leaving your home and earn free Mitt gear, too." The campaign's call-from-home program awarded bumper stickers for making 100 calls and fancy sweatshirts for cramming in 1,500 calls that week. Signed photos of Romney were a mere 500 calls away.

In some places, Obama's campaign has held "Day of Action" events where volunteers get points for going door to door or for doing various social media postings. A signed copy of last winter's State of the Union address was on the line in one case.

Campaigns score, too. The intrinsic value of the contacts volunteers make far exceeds the cost of shipping out gear with the candidate's logo. They can also extract data that helps them better identify key community activists.

When former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty was in the presidential race, his campaign awarded points to people simply for linking their Facebook and Twitter accounts to the campaign page. Ruffini, who helped design that system, said the links helped the campaign judge who could prove influential in their communities by the number of friends they have on Facebook, for instance.

Mastin, whose young firm 5ivePoints advises a few dozen campaigns at the local, state and federal levels, said the spread of campaign rewards programs recognizes that people crave a tangible payoff for hardly glamorous volunteer work. They get hung up on, shouted at and exposed to grumpy responses at the doorstep.

"What we came to the conclusion is people have to feel better about that by getting a badge for literally having the door slammed in your face," Mastin said.

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