ST. PAUL, Minn. — 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 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,” Mr. 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 leader boards to encourage repeat participation and friendly competition among campaign regulars angling to outdo their buddies.
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 Mr. Romney were a mere 500 calls away.
In some places, Mr. Obama’s campaign has held “Day of Action” events during which volunteers get points for going door to door or for doing various social media postings. A signed copy of this year’s State of the Union address was on the line in one case.