Democrats had access to similar data files. But the Bush campaign and the RNC were able to make far better use of the data because they had the time and money to conduct repeated field tests in the 2002 and 2003 elections, to finance advanced research on meshing databases with polling information, and to clean up and revise databases that almost invariably contained errors and omissions.
"Very few people understand how much work it takes to get this technology to actually produce political results. We are one election cycle behind them in this area," said a Democrat who helped coordinate voter contact in the 2004 campaign.
How the Two Parties Split Their Millions|
The 2004 presidential campaigns and the national parties handed out bigger contracts, hired more consultants and bought more television time than ever, with both sides channeling millions of dollars to consultants specializing in media, direct mail and fundraising.
Here is how it was spent.
The Bush campaign turned to relative newcomers nurtured by White House political adviser Karl Rove. Their companies received at least $250 million from the Bush campaign and the Republican National Committee. They are:
Mark McKinnon (Public Strategies Inc.), a Texan and a former Democrat who put together the 12-member ad-making consortium, Maverick Media, which was paid $177 million, mostly for radio and TV time. Maverick consultants McKinnon, Alex Castellanos (National Media Inc.), Stuart Stevens (the Stevens and Schriefer Group) and Madison Avenue executives Bruce Van Dussen and Harold Kaplan agreed to be paid fees instead of a percentage of their ad buys. Sources estimated Maverick's consultancy fees were as much as $6 million.
Tony Feather, political director of the 2000 Bush-Cheney campaign, a principal in the direct mail and voter contact firm, Feather Larson & Synhorst DCI, which was paid $21.3 million.
Todd Olsen and Heather Shuvalov, who bought Rove's Austin direct-mail firm, forming Olsen & Shuvalov, which was paid $41.3 million.
The Kerry campaign hired mainly consultants entrenched in the Democratic establishment, led by Robert Shrum, a speechwriter, media adviser and strategist on eight losing presidential campaigns dating to Edmund S. Muskie in 1972. The Kerry campaign and the Democratic National Committee also used a consortium, called Riverfront Media, which was paid $150 million for TV advertising. The first receiving the Democratic work were:
Shrum, Tad Devine and Michael Donilon's firm, which was paid about $5 million.
James Margolis's firm, Greer Margolis Mitchell Burns and Associates, and Bill Knapp's firm, Squier Knapp Dunn Communications, which divvied up $5 million.
Democratic media consultants David Axelrod and Steve Murphy, who split about $1 million in fees for DNC independent expenditure ads.
The Bush campaign's early fundraising success made much of this possible. By March 2004, Bush had $110 million in the bank and virtually no debt. During this period, Kerry was forced to spend all his time and money in the Democratic primaries, a fight that cost him $36 million and that left him $5 million in debt.
"Nobody was giving a thought at all to the general election," said Kerry pollster Mark S. Mellman. Until that March, "it was: How do we survive this week?"
Bush Ads Undermine Kerry
Two days after Super Tuesday, the Bush campaign, anticipating Kerry would have no money to respond, began a $40 million, six-week televised assault designed to crush the Democratic nominee before he could get off the ground. "We had a financial advantage over them for four to six weeks. That's why we did what we did," Dowd said.
With a $177 million ad budget, the Bush campaign and its allies ran more than 101,000 anti-Kerry "attack" or negative ads, more than the combined total of "positive" and "contrast" ads, according to the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project, based on data from Nielsen Monitor-Plus ratings of media buying effectiveness.
Less than 5 percent of Kerry's ads were "attack" or negative, according to the Wisconsin advertising project, and the remaining 95 percent were positive or contrast ads.
During March and April, before the candidate had replenished his war chest to finance TV ads, Kerry strategists were convinced that Kerry needed a barrage of positive biographical ads describing him in a sympathetic light to counter the negative picture drawn by the Bush ads. But when the Democratic 527s began their ad campaign, they aired negative ads reflecting their intensely anti-Bush donor base.
By the time Kerry had raised enough money to begin his positive ad campaign two months later, the Bush "attack" ads had helped convert the ratio of Kerry's positive to negative ratings in battleground states. Kerry's positive ratings fell from 40 percent to 35 percent, and his negative ratings rose from 24 percent to 36 percent at the start of May, according to the National Annenberg Election Surveys.
The negative Bush barrage was followed in August by the Swift Boat Veterans ads, the first one airing on just four cable channels at a cost of $546,000. The Swift Boat Veterans eventually would raise and spend $28 million, but the first ad was exceptionally cost-effective: most voters learned about it through free coverage in mainstream media and talk radio.
An additional Republican television commercial that significantly affected the race, according to surveys, was a positive spot financed by a second GOP 527 group, Progress for America. It invested $17 million in "Ashley's Story," which featured Ashley Faulkner, 11, whose mother had been killed in the attack on the World Trade Center, describing her meeting with Bush.
GOP Dollar Power
Overall, Kerry, the DNC and the Democratic 527s spent $344 million on ads, while Bush and the GOP counterparts spent about $289 million, much of which was disbursed in the final three months. Arguably, Republicans got more bang for their bucks.
The Bush campaign's early strategy decisions shaped GOP spending. Under the guidance of Rove, Dowd and Mehlman, the Bush campaign had financed early research into ways to communicate to center-right voters through nontraditional media.
The Bush campaign concluded that many of their voters did not trust the networks and the establishment press, and therefore did not trust messages transmitted through them.
Mehlman said that talk radio and cable television "are more credible" to potential Bush voters. Ultimately the Bush campaign invested an unprecedented $20 million in narrowly targeted advertising on cable and in radio, with a heavy emphasis on religious, talk and country and western stations, and such specialty outlets as golf and health club channels.
"They did a lot of stuff really well. They were ahead of us," said one of the Democrats' get-out-the-vote managers who did not want to be identified. "They had a strategy set by the beginning that they were going to live and die by. And we didn't."
In an election with a 2.6 percent margin of victory, the Bush campaign was run to ensure that every dollar went to fulfill core strategies, that resources were allocated to capitalize on Bush's strengths and on Kerry's vulnerabilities, and that the money necessary to finance research, technological advance, television and the ground war was available when needed.
At the July Democratic National Convention in Boston, McAuliffe commented on the disciplined Republican team: "We are up against the dirtiest, meanest, toughest group of people we have ever faced. They have money, they have power, and they ain't going to give it up easily."
Researcher Alice Crites, database editor Sarah Cohen and research database editor Derek Willis contributed to this report.