Parties Square Off In a Database Duel
So they ask. This is where field workers such as Rutkus and Harris come in. By marching door to door, they are able to assess whether a person marked as an "I" for independent on the voter rolls might be amenable to overtures from the Democratic Party (the two operatives ignore people listed on voter registration forms as Republicans).
Even without finding anyone home, the door-knocking exercise can offer some telling factoids. When Rutkus spots a placard for a labor union in the window of one townhouse, he notes this on his clipboard.
The two men also have another key assignment: verifying information. Individual data are notoriously volatile, as people move, age, marry, divorce or have children, and so much effort is geared toward weeding out old information -- "deadwood." During the 2000 election, before the creation of DataMart, the Florida Democratic Party's files on voters were in such a primitive state that Democrats could not contact 1.48 million registered supporters on behalf of Gore and statewide candidates.
"Almost a million and a half people never got a letter or a phone call from us because we had the wrong address or phone number," said McAuliffe, who upon becoming DNC chairman in early 2001 ordered changes. "And these were Democratic people! It was reprehensible."
Exactly what the parties have in their databases on Ohio's 4.7 million voters is closely guarded (DNC officials spoke in general about their files; the RNC declined to comment). But for starters, according to several sources, each file duplicates what is already available through state voter-registration rolls: name, gender, date of birth, address, county, state and federal congressional district, date of registration, party of registration (if any), and number of elections voted in.
This information has been abetted by block-level census data and lists sold by commercial brokers that give the parties a general fix on marital status, ethnicity, educational level, the number of people living in each house, estimated home value, the length of residency, and whether a person rents or owns the residence.
Through their record-keeping, plus list swaps with other organizations, the parties know who has made political contributions or charitable donations. Lists of club and organization memberships, plus self-identifying groups organized by the campaign, fill out to the picture. The Bush campaign has about 30 "affinity" groups it communicates with periodically, including African Americans for Bush, stock-car racing fans and snowmobile enthusiasts.
What the parties do not keep, officials in both parties said, is information on consumer behavior, such as credit reports, automobile ownership or magazine subscriptions. "There's a lot of information that's useless in a political context," one operative said. "We don't really care who bought shoes at the Gap."
Republicans and Democrats alike agree that the RNC, which began assembling its database several years before the DNC did, has been more effective in using its information. The party's 72-Hour Task Force -- a voter-registration and get-out-the-vote program -- relied on block-by-block data during the 2002 congressional elections and in successful gubernatorial races in 2003 in Kentucky and Mississippi. Spooked by those efforts, and formerly dependent on state party lists alone, the DNC has hustled to catch up and is "almost at parity now," said Michael Cornfield of George Washington University, an expert in online politics.
Larger Role May Be on the Horizon
As candidates get better at tailoring multiple messages for disparate groups of people, some worry that a kind of Tower of Babel effect could take over: Voters who are members of one targeted group will not know what is being said to another, and vice versa.
"It doesn't bode particularly well for democracy if everyone isn't hearing the same message," said Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization based in San Diego. For example, she said, it would be deceptive if a candidate sent a highly inflammatory message to people identified as strongly anti-immigrant while appealing to the mainstream with more moderate rhetoric.
Another potential shortcoming: As databases enable candidates to refine their get-out-the-vote programs to people identified as their most likely supporters, indifferent or less committed voters may be bypassed. Why bother trying to persuade someone whom a computer has tagged as a lousy prospect?
But Givens said this could work the other way, too. "Some of these strategies could bring more people to the polls if [a candidate] reaches out to people who weren't being addressed before, with messages they hadn't heard before."
As the field matures, most involved in it believe database-marketing techniques will assume an ever-larger role in campaigns. "These databases are going to be at the heart of what political parties are in the 21st century," Cornfield said. "They'll be able to say to their candidates and their [allied organizations], 'We'll give you the data you need; we have the most up-to-date stuff.' "
For decades, he said, the national parties' most important political commodities were manpower and money. Increasingly, he said, "it's information."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Mark Rutkus of the Franklin County Democratic Party meets Linda Houston and her granddaughter at Houston's house.
(Paul Farhi -- The Washington Post)
About the Series|
This occasional series on the presidential election in Ohio, which both President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry have identified as a critical swing state, examines the evolving strategies and techniques for motivating supporters and persuading uncommitted voters in an age of deep partisan divides.