Minn. GOP Asks Activists to Report on Neighbors' Politics
By Brian Faler
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 18, 2004; Page A05
All politics is local. But this year, it is getting downright neighborly.
Take Minnesota. The state Republican Party has developed a Web site that allows its activists to tap into a database of voters whose political allegiances and concerns it would like to know. But it is not just any group of voters -- they are the activists' neighbors.
The project, dubbed WebVoter, gives GOP activists the names and addresses of 25 people who live, in most cases, within a couple of blocks from them. The party has asked 60,000 supporters from across the state to figure out what issues animate their neighbors and where they stand in the political spectrum, and report that information back to the party -- with or, possibly, without their neighbors' permission.
Those who seem persuadable will receive campaign literature from Republican candidates -- including President Bush -- with whom the party plans to share its data. Those deemed incorrigible Democrats will be struck from the list.
"We don't want to waste our time or money on people who are not going to vote with us regardless of what we do," said Larry Colson, a Minnesota entrepreneur who helped develop the site. "We would like to be able to hone the message to people who are already with us and then people who are on the fence -- those are the people that we'd like to target."
The Minnesota GOP, like many state parties, already collects voter information. It uses public information that Minnesotans provide when they register to vote, including their names, addresses and phone numbers. The party cross-references that data with information gleaned from other public and private sources.
Colson, who is also the Bush campaign's "e-campaign chairman" for Minnesota, declined to say what other information the state party uses. But other state parties and campaigns typically tap demographic and consumer data taken from census reports or direct-marketing companies. The goal is to create detailed profiles of voters that will help the party decide whom it should woo -- and how.
Minnesota and 22 other states do not require those registering to vote to identify their party affiliation. But through its efforts, Colson said, the party believes it has determined the political leanings of about 60 percent of the state's households. Some of the remainder -- he would not say how much -- has landed in the party's new database, a list that includes "tens of thousands" of names.
The site and the party's reliance on neighborly connections, Colson said, are ways of filling those gaps. "You're more likely to tell your neighbor what your party preference is when they ask than you are to some stranger on the phone," he said.
The project, which was first reported by the Minneapolis Star Tribune, could affect the November election in this battleground state. Democrat Al Gore won in 2000 by a little more than 2 percent of the vote -- about 60,000 ballots.
The Bush campaign launched a similar effort on its Web site. Those who sign up to be campaign volunteers -- and who live in a state the campaign is targeting -- can access a list of their neighbors the campaign would like to reach. The site provides their names, addresses, phone numbers, maps of where each lives and a script with a number of questions -- including whether they are registered to vote, are opposed to abortion rights and support the president.
The script also directs activists to identify themselves as Bush volunteers -- to prevent any questions as to where the respondents' information will end up, the campaign said.
Colson said the Minnesota GOP has also asked its activists to identify themselves as such. But he said it is still possible that some will report on neighbors' views without their permission. "We don't really have a script, so to speak, other than 'get to know your neighbors -- talk to them.' So we've only given them rough guidelines," Colson said.
"But it's not as if we're asking for Social Security number and make and model and serial number of car. We're asking for party preference," he said. "Party preference is not something that is such a personal piece of data."
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