OHIO RIVER RAMBLE Nine Districts in Nine Days
In Ohio, a Battle of Databases
Tuesday, September 26, 2006
CINCINNATI, Sept. 25 -- There is no sexier topic in politics these days than "microtargeting." That's the new science (some say dark art) by which candidates use the latest data-mining technology to vacuum every last scrap of information about voters, then churn out custom-tailored messages designed to herd their supporters to the polls.
Here in Rep. Steve Chabot's campaign headquarters, microtargeting does not seem quite as glamorous as advertised. There are 10 phones arranged neatly on a long wooden table. Nearby sit two stacks of paper, each filled with names, each name assigned a bar code.
Every evening, volunteers file into this room to place waves of phone calls aimed at identifying the people who are most likely to reward this six-term Republican with a seventh. At the end of the evening, the results -- a trove of the likes and dislikes of 1st District voters -- are scanned into a database. It is painstaking work.
But Chabot and his Democratic challenger, Cincinnati City Council member John Cranley, have placed large bets that it will prove effective. Both candidates have spent months combing through voter lists to find "drop-off" voters -- those who turn out in presidential election years but rarely in midterm contests. In a district as evenly divided as this one -- President Bush won it by just 3,000 votes in 2004 -- the party best equipped to find and persuade these individuals to turn out on Nov. 7 will probably end up on top.
"Elections are not rocket science," said Brad Greenberg, executive director of the Hamilton County Republican Party. "They are about identifying voters who are Republicans and getting them out to the polls."
In the past several elections, especially in Ohio, Republicans have won the ground game, building a vast and constantly growing network of potential voters identified less by their formal party affiliation than their church membership or magazine subscriptions.
The more information a campaign has on who lives at a particular address, the more tailored the pitch that will follow. A suburban mom? Make sure she receives material highlighting the candidate's strong stands on homeland security. An out-of-work pipefitter? Let him know that the candidate supports penalties on businesses that hire undocumented workers.
Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee and one of the principal architects of the GOP turnout apparatus nationwide, said a top-notch voter identification and turnout effort matters more in a congressional race than a presidential one because there is "much less of a public dialogue" about individual House contests. They get less news coverage and are less likely to be talked about in offices and bars. That means targeted information delivered by the campaigns is potentially decisive.
While Chabot's army of phone volunteers searches for new votes each night, Cranley and his team mine voter lists at his headquarters, the former home of People's Community Bank. (It may be the only campaign headquarters in the country with its own vault.) Cranley says his goal is to reach out three times to every 1st District resident who backed Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004 but failed to vote in 2002 -- roughly 25,000 people. Thanks to heavy commitments by organized labor and national Democrats, Cranley believes he can corral many of these fall-off voters.
But he acknowledges that Democrats were "late to the game" on turnout in 2004. Visits to the two headquarters and conversations with campaign staff members suggest that Chabot's voter identification and turnout operation is more advanced.
One factor in Cranley's favor is that Democratic voters, not Republicans, are seemingly most energized this fall. When he first ran against Chabot in 2000, Cranley said, people regularly told him that they "hated" President Bill Clinton and could not stomach voting for any Democrat. "You could feel there was this motivation of anger," he said. Six years later, the anger is on the other foot. Cranley says voters approach him constantly, vowing to vote against every Republican on the ballot because they are "so angry at these guys."
Anecdotes aside, national polling bears out this trend. While Bush's job-approval numbers have rebounded slightly of late, there remains a wide disparity between the relatively small number of those who strongly approve of his performance and the number of those who say they strongly disapprove. In Ohio, this national trend merges with voter disgust over ethics scandals surrounding outgoing Gov. Bob Taft (R).
Chabot knows that angry people vote. That helps explain his unrelenting focus on illegal immigration, an ire-inducing issue for conservatives, in this year's campaign. Chabot has run three television advertisements attacking Cranley as a backer of amnesty for illegal immigrants -- and, by insinuation, weak on terrorism. "This is an issue that is very concerning for people in our area," said Chabot spokeswoman Jessica Towhey. "It is not just illegal immigrants but terrorists who are able to exploit our borders."
Cranley has responded with an ad of his own that asks why the incumbent has done nothing about the problem of illegal immigration during his 12 years in Congress. He dismisses Chabot's attacks as feeble attempts to frighten voters. "They are trying to scare up votes on it," Cranley said.
In a district that takes only 25 minutes to drive from end to end, undecided voters will have plenty of chances to sound out the candidates' views on immigration and other issues between now and Election Day. If polling is any indicator, even a few hundred votes could tip the seat one way or another.
While Democrats are confident, they are haunted by memories of 2004. That fall, Democrats were certain they had met all their turnout goals to ensure victory in Ohio for Kerry. On election night, it turned out Bush's campaign had done an even better job of meeting their own goals.
Cranley said his supporters have learned the lesson. "This will be the most targeted field campaign in the country," he boasted.