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IT on the Campaign Trail

IT on the Campaign Trail

The 2004 US presidential race may well hinge on which party most effectively exploits data mining tools to get out the vote

Three months from now, US President George Bush and Senator John Kerry will wage their final battle for the White House. The race will ultimately be decided by which candidate (and which party) can mobilize more of its supporters from the time the voting booths open at dawn on the East Coast until they close in Hawaii 19 hours later. And who does this best depends on IT.

In this year’s presidential election, political ­operatives are relying more than ever on CRM-type systems to comb voters’ histories and demographic data to find those supporters who will vote for and perhaps contribute to their cause.

To paraphrase James Carville, “It’s the database, stupid.”

Both parties have invested millions in central, state-of-the-art data warehouses, data mining software and Web-based user interfaces, creating arsenals of marketing tools that rival those of large corporations. The Republicans, who started building this capability in the mid-1990s, got a jump on the Democrats, who have raced to catch up since 2000. By their own admission, the Democrats still lack some of the capabilities that the GOP already has in place, including the ability to give every field worker in every state online access to voter ­information. However, says Laura Quinn, managing partner with QRS Newmedia, who developed the Democratic National Committee’s post-2000 IT strategy, the Democrats couldn’t think of winning without the investments the party has made to date.

Regardless of who’s ahead at this particular juncture, the party regulars agree on one thing: The 2004 presidential race may well hinge on how the donkey and the elephant use IT.

Mass Media Burnout

Candidates for national office and their respective parties spend fortunes to market themselves to voters through television, mailings, telemarketing and door-to-door canvassing. Bush spent $US186 million to win his first term in 2000, while Gore spent $US120 million, according to the campaign finance Web site OpenSecrets.org. Just like corporate marketers, political persuaders want to spend their money most efficiently by targeting people most likely to vote for their candidate. “Politicos are fond of saying that a campaign is a one-day sale,” says Carol Darr, director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at The George Washington University. If a candidate can’t get people to the polls on that day, he’ll be out of business.

Operatives want to focus their firepower on two groups of voters: Those who (like a company’s highly valued customers) are already in their camp, and those who (because of their views and preferences) can be won over. According to a poll published in March by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, undecided voters account for 29 percent of the electorate, but a mere 6 percent are truly on the fence. Most already lean toward either Bush or Kerry, but still need to be persuaded. According to a recent analysis by the Los Angeles Times, the presidency will probably be decided in a dozen or fewer swing states — including Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania — that in 2000 chose either Bush or Gore by margins of 6 percent or less.

Before radio and television, every campaign depended on personal contact with voters. The most important investment a campaign made was in shoe leather. “People would show up on the doorstep,” says Laurie Moskowitz, a consultant who ran field operations for the Democrats in 2000. But in the 1960s, the mass media began to interpose itself between campaign and voter, particularly in national elections. Candidates, advised by a growing mob of media consultants, tailored their messages for TV and built campaign strategies around advertising markets. They used consumer and census information to target voters by demographic slices — middle-class white men, African-Americans, suburban soccer moms and so on. “There was a de-emphasis on old-fashioned, grassroots campaigning,” says James Gimpel, a political scientist and voter behaviour expert at the University of Maryland, who consults with Republicans on how to use demographic data.

This media-focused strategy resulted in sweeping demographic slices, which led to homogenized messages that failed to inspire a lot of voters. Consequently, they tuned out. Between 1952 and 1972, 60 percent or more of the electorate regularly voted for president. But since 1972, the turnout of eligible voters for presidential elections has reached 60 percent only once, when Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 (60.6 percent of eligible voters went to the polls that year). Voters, sophisticated in the ways of mass marketing, “find it easy to blow off slick advertising”, explains Gimpel.

Virtual Shoe Leather

Today, technology brings campaigning full circle and reintroduces shoe leather — virtually. Modern relational database technology makes it easy to compile an unprecedented amount of information about voters that can be used to create customized messages. From local election records, the campaigns can access data on party affiliation, age, gender and how often someone votes. From the census and polling, they can derive information about race, household income and family status. The Internet and fast, inexpensive servers enable the state parties and campaign operatives to keep millions of records current in near real time. And with that data, Web-based tools allow campaigns to segment voters quickly and efficiently so that campaign workers can make on-the-spot decisions about where to advertise, whom to call or e-mail, which doors to knock on and what messages to send. Last year, Kerry, Senator John Edwards, Howard Dean and others campaigning in Iowa shelled out $US65,000 each to the state Democratic Party for a database of 1.8 million Iowa voters (under campaign finance laws, candidates and party organizations don’t get anything for free; they have to pay for each other’s services).

The Kerry campaign used the Iowa data to good effect. John McCormally, communications director for the Iowa Democratic Party, says Kerry’s field workers used the state’s database, combined with public records on who gets veterans’ benefits, to identify 100,000 veterans and their spouses, whom they later contacted by going door-to-door, calling them on the phone or sending literature. Veterans gave Kerry critical support to win the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses. “Four days before, Kerry was not ahead,” notes McCormally. “Even the day beforehand it was close.”

Republicans used IT to much the same advantage in 2002. Steve Ellis, director of network and online services for the Republican National Committee, says that the party’s then-newly deployed Voter Vault — a set of online data segmentation tools — provided “a marginal but critical increase in turnout and support” for Republicans that year. For the Democrats, detailed online voter data in 2002 helped Arizona Attorney General Janet Napolitano win the race for governor against former Representative Matt Salmon. Moskowitz, who ran Napolitano’s field operation while working for FieldWorks, a political consultancy, used information from the DNC’s DataMart (what the Democrats call their national voter database) to build a model of Arizona voters and polled them to gauge their support for Napolitano as well as their views on key issues. Moskowitz found three groups who might be leaning toward a Democratic governor: elderly Republican men; married, independent women; and single, rural women. Based on voters’ answers to the poll questions, the campaign sent two different messages: The Republicans and independent women (who seemed concerned about leadership) heard about Napolitano’s ability to make tough budget decisions as Attorney General, while the rural women (who cared about Napolitano’s personal values) were told her life story. Any time field workers collected new information about individual voters, they reported the updates to the Arizona Democratic Party, which used the data to refine its targets for its get-out-the-vote drive.

One analysis of previous voter turnout data revealed low participation rates in some neighbourhoods of Tucson, in the US state of Arizona, traditionally a Democratic stronghold. So in the two weeks leading up to Election Day and on the day itself, the party sent more field workers door-to-door. Arizona Democratic Party chairman Jim Pederson says this strategy resulted in a 65 percent voter turnout in the Tucson area, compared to 56 percent statewide. A little more than half of the voters Arizona Democrats personally contacted (either in door-to-door visits or by phone) filled out a ballot.

The GOP Head Start

The Republicans began working on an integrated national voter database nearly a decade ago, a full six years before the Democrats. Like other technology-related campaign innovations that the party pioneered, such as telemarketing and direct mail in the 1980s, the decision reflected an ongoing business problem. Republicans tend to live in suburban and rural areas, which makes door-to-door campaigning expensive, says University of Maryland’s Gimpel. As a result, he says the Republicans pretty much abandoned local grassroots organizing as far back as the 1960s and sought instead to pool more of its resources at the national level.

Ellis, the GOP technology director, says the idea of creating a national voter database (known internally as the voter file) percolated for years, but party officials thought the cost to maintain and track records on 168 million voters was too high. Then, in the mid-90s, the price of processing power and storage dropped enough to make the project cost-effective. In 1995, the RNC convinced state party leaders to share their voter lists by offering to share the costs of collecting and maintaining the data — the main source of which is voter registration and turnout records from local governments. The states collect the data, which comes in every format from paper poll books to floppy disks to tapes, and turn it over to the RNC. Then, says Ellis, the RNC compiles it and sends it to a vendor who cleanses it by matching it with a database of valid addresses from the US Postal Service. When the data comes back, each voter is assigned a geography-based code that’s used to link their record to census information about the same address. As the Democrats did in Iowa, the RNC enhances the file by contacting independent voters and asking them questions that gauge their support for Republicans, such as whether they’ve voted for the GOP in the past or what they think about an issue.

Ellis says the RNC has unlimited access to the database for its fund-raising and campaigning efforts, while the state parties control access by everyone else. Creating the database and putting it online through a portal created immediate efficiencies when it came to generating mailing and telemarketing lists. But the full power of the system is realized by the field workers for the RNC, state parties and GOP candidates. The Voter Vault interface allows these operatives, many of them volunteers, to generate lists of target voters on the fly, right up until the polls close on election day. Because the database is updated on a rolling basis, operatives have a much better chance than they used to of hitting the right targets — voters they can persuade to go Republican. The detail available in the file about each voter helps operatives tailor a personal pitch.

Ellis contends the Republicans’ head start and their cumulative investment in data quality over nearly a decade will make the difference for Republican candidates this (northern) autumn.

Democrats Play Catch-Up

The Democrats beg to differ. After Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the 2000 election, the DNC’s postelection competitive analysis identified the lack of an integrated voter database as one of the major operational differences between the two parties, according to QRS Newmedia’s Quinn. By 2002, the party had invested $US3 million dollars in a new IT infrastructure with the national voter database (the DataMart) at its core. In its operation, the DataMart is similar to the GOP’s voter file: It’s a relational database that links voter registration and turnout records with census information and whatever other data the party can collect. The state parties provide their data (largely from local election records) to the DNC using a set of XML standards for data exchange. The DNC outsources the data cleanup, then makes it available to the state parties, who in turn allow password-protected access to campaign operatives for state, local and congressional candidates.

One shortcoming of the Democratic effort so far is the lack of online tools (such as the Republicans have) that allow party operatives in every state to more easily segment voter data. However, by accessing a secure DNC Web site, such tools are available to DNC campaigners and Kerry’s field workers — putting the Kerry campaign at technological par with Bush. But 14 states still keep their data on a server that isn’t connected to the Internet, which could make a difference for other Democrats on the ballot.

The biggest benefit for the Democrats is that for the first time, the national and state parties are working from the same data, says Moskowitz. She contends the Democrats can compete even if they don’t all have access to the latest tools. Most major campaigns, and the state parties, have people on staff with experience using databases, she says, and these operatives don’t need the user-friendly interfaces. But she concedes the importance of accessibility. “If you make [the data] more accessible, it’s more likely people will use it,” she says, including volunteers in the field who aren’t expert data analysts.

The 2004 Race

The key to winning the presidency this year, predicts Moskowitz, will be how effectively the major parties and their candidates conduct niche marketing campaigns. “It’s going to be mobilization of lots of small universes,” she says. “This set of Hispanic voters in New Mexico, and that set of African-American voters in Michigan and nonmarried women in Pennsylvania. That is going to equal mass mobilization.”

The expectation of both parties is that their investment in data at the national level will benefit a whole slate of candidates, not just the presidential contenders. “In developing resources on things like direct voter contact, that helps things across the board for the entire ticket,” says the RNC’s Ellis.

Ellis is deploying wireless capability for field workers this year, so they’ll be able to access the Voter Vault application with a PDA and download a list of voters to contact in their door-knocking campaigns. But he says his major initiative will be to update the millions of records in the database with the latest information about new voter registrations, and changes in address and voting history provided through local election records. Like the Republicans, the Democrats will also keep updating their records so that they have accurate lists in the critical days before the election.

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