By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 8, 2006
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- It may seem like a distant memory now, but Democrats not so long ago dominated the battle between the parties to get their voters to the polls.
Over the past half-dozen years, Republicans reinvented the system, using sophisticated computer modeling and vast amounts of consumer data. In 2002 and 2004, they demonstrated their newfound superiority -- to the dismay of Democratic Party officials and their allies.
"It's no secret that the other side figured this out a little sooner," said Josh Syrjamaki, the state director of America Votes, an umbrella organization of labor and liberal interest groups. "They've had four to six years' jump on us on this stuff . . . but we feel like we can start to catch up. I guess we'll find out in about a month and a half how much we've caught up."
On a blustery afternoon in their third-floor office suite, Syrjamaki and Ed Coleman, the technology director for the Minnesota chapter of America Votes, were hunched over a laptop computer, teasing out information that Democrats hope will begin to narrow the sizable gap with the GOP.
The laptop linked them to a huge new database that holds the names, addresses, voting histories and consumer preferences of every Minnesota resident eligible -- though not necessarily registered -- to vote. That's a weapon that allows them to identify, locate, contact and turn out likely Democratic voters who have been largely invisible to them.
Campaigns and candidates once used blunt instruments to mobilize voters, targeting geographic areas where there were concentrations of Democratic or Republican voters. Those techniques remain an essential part of the turnout wars that can decide a close election, which is why campaigns, political parties and their ideological allies will put legions of volunteers on the streets in the final days before Nov. 7.
Increasingly, however, campaigns have begun identifying potential voters literally one by one, even if they live in areas dominated by the opposition party. Using surveys and modeling and consumer and political data, the parties convert the electorate into subgroups that turnout specialists call by names like "Flag and Family Republicans," "Education-Focused Democrats" and "Older Suburban Newshounds."
This is known as microtargeting, and it turns traditional political mobilizing on its head by giving campaigns the opportunity to create virtual precincts of voters and poach on the opponent's turf.
With the click of a mouse, a Democratic campaign operative can call up a list (and accompanying map) identifying by name and address voters who may live in a Republican precinct or county but who, by virtue of ideology, party identification, religion, favorite drink or television show, or make of car, are more likely to vote Democratic.
In 2004, the biggest jump in GOP votes came in non-GOP precincts, according to former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie. "The biggest boost came from cities where Republican registration is like 20 or 25 percent," he said.
These voters are often difficult to motivate, but both parties see them as critically important additions to the reliable voters they have concentrated on in the past. "It's a heavier lift, but we're now going to find them, whereas before we never even talked to them," said Karen White, national political director for Emily's List, which backs Democratic women who support abortion rights. "Now we're in the game."
The Republicans have attracted attention to their microtargeting skills by emphasizing the importance of consumer information in predicting voting patterns -- Republicans prefer bourbon, for instance, while Democrats prefer gin. Such lifestyle information is most helpful in tailoring messages for voters, though other information such as party identification or frequency of church attendance remains a more reliable predictor of how someone is likely to vote.
Republicans pioneered these techniques, building on data gathered for years and stored and managed through the Republican National Committee. Democrats acknowledge that they have been far sloppier in their collection and retention of data -- voter files were often lost or tossed out between elections. Even now there is competition between the Democratic National Committee and outside groups, which are essentially building duplicate versions of the same system.
Harold Ickes, a driving force behind outside efforts to put Democrats back in the game, said Republicans have two clear advantages over the Democrats. First is a deeper and richer database, which improves the GOP's ability to "model the electorate" -- the term for identifying and classifying voter blocs -- and to tailor messages to individual voters. Second is a trained cadre of people who know how to make use of the databases.
"We are still behind the eight ball on that, and it will take us a handful of years to catch up," Ickes said.
Ickes is president of a for-profit firm called Catalist, which is creating a national voter file that will be available for purchase by an array of special interest groups, "527" organizations and political campaigns, including those of 2008 presidential candidates. Laura Quinn, a veteran Democratic strategist who helped create a voter file for the DNC when Terence R. McAuliffe was chairman, serves as chief executive.
The firm's budget for the year, Ickes said, is "in the low $9 million range," and so far Catalist has produced voter files for about half of the states, including the important 2006 battlegrounds. Ickes said the firm has 19 customers, including the AFL-CIO, the Service Employees International Union and Emily's List.
The private-sector Democratic effort appears cumbersome compared with the centralized operation organized under the RNC. Catalist produces the voter file, but from there the subscribers must manipulate the data to make microtargeting possible. Progressive groups are running experiments in a handful of states, including Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Colorado.
Emily's List, with help from the service employees union, took the lead, surveying 10,000 people in Michigan and 9,300 in Minnesota. Respondents were asked how they used their free time, what kinds of volunteer work they did, and other lifestyle or values-oriented questions, as well as their voting intentions.
The next step was to build clusters of voters based on political and lifestyle characteristics. The results were then applied to the entire voter file in the states -- more than 7 million in Michigan and more than 4 million in Minnesota.
In Michigan, the process produced 14 clusters -- three strongly Democratic, one weak Democratic, six in the middle, two strongly Republican and two weak Republican. The modeling cost about $250,000. In Minnesota, the process produced 13 clusters, including the Older Suburban Newshounds and Rural Religious Moralists. The highly informed newshounds make up the largest of the 13, while the rural moralists are one of the smallest ones.
Armed with the new database, America Votes coordinates efforts for dozens of interest groups on the left. In Minnesota, Syrjamaki and Coleman provided a demonstration of the new database by pinpointing two heavily Republican counties in the state, rural Otter Tail and exurban Chisago.
With a few clicks, Coleman reduced the vast file to a list of the clusters in Chisago County and with minimal effort was able to show a list of potential Democratic voters surrounded by tens of thousands of Republicans.
"We have a nice chunk of people that we would not normally have known about," Coleman said. "We would not have blindly gone in and called people there, but now we've found a universe, and if we want to we can go call."
Just as important, America Votes tries to assure that the array of Democratic interest groups avoid duplication in contacting voters while reaching out to irregular voters who have been ignored or simply missed in the past. With the help of America Votes, Democratic groups can divide up individual voters, and, based on their profiles, these voters can be targeted with messages that conform to their particular interests and issue preferences.
The Democratic National Committee has spent about $8 million building its own national voter file and is running modeling experiments in six states this fall, although officials there will not name the states. "We've invested a huge amount of money and time to improve the quality of the data in the voter file," said Ben Self, a veteran of DNC Chairman Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign who is directing the technology effort for the party.
Republicans retain advantages in this turnout battle. The RNC has successfully used microtargeting to identify potential Republicans who are not registered to vote and have systematically sought to get them to register. That helped changed the balance between Republicans and Democrats in the 2004 election to the GOP's advantage.
The experiments of 2006 are seen as a prelude to the 2008 presidential campaign, when Democrats hope to be closer to parity with Republicans in finding those hard-to-get voters registered and to the polls.
"We had huge voter turnout in our heaviest base areas," Coleman said. "But we cannot count on that turnout to carry the day. We're going to have to do better in these fast-growing counties outside the metro area, and this is one tool we're going to use to try to do that."