Aug. 28 Has Room for Another Milestone

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington. (By Steve Gerstel -- United Press International)
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By Chris Cillizza and Shaiagh Murray
The Washington Post
Sunday, August 17, 2008

Sen. Barack Obama's upcoming acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention will further cement Aug. 28 as one of the most significant dates in the American civil rights movement.

As is often noted, Aug. 28, 2008, will be the 45th anniversary of the "I Have a Dream" speech delivered by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. As King noted in that famous address, "Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning" in the quest for equal treatment of African Americans.

Aug. 28, 1955, was the day that Emmett Till, a black 14-year-old from Chicago, was brutally killed in the Mississippi Delta town of Money. The acquittal of the white suspects helped to spark the civil rights movement.

Aug. 28, 2005, was the eve of Hurricane Katrina's deadly landfall in southern Louisiana and Mississippi, turning a nation's attention to the wrenching poverty that continued to mark the lives of many African Americans.

"It's a seminal moment," said Brenda Jones, spokeswoman for Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a leading civil rights figure. Although Lewis initially backed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, he will be among the chief celebrants in Denver when Obama walks on stage as the first African American to claim his party's nomination.

Crunching Numbers

Even among politicos, Mike Podhorzer isn't a household name. The 2008 election may well change that.

Podhorzer, the deputy political director of the AFL-CIO, is at the leading edge of a movement to reverse the traditional political approach to communicating with voters. "Instead of deciding what should move people, we'll let people tell us what moves them," he explains.

He calls it "data-driven politics," and it works like this:

The AFL-CIO wants to spend several million dollars on a mailing to its members. Traditionally, a focus group of about 12 people would be convened, and a series of different messages would be tested on them. The message the group liked best would be used for the broad-scale mailing.

Under the model Podhorzer employs, random samples of 20,000 (or so) union households each receive a different piece of mail containing messages about the two candidates. One sample group receives no mail at all. Then, the AFL-CIO conducts a poll of roughly 1,000 people in each subgroup to test how the mailing affected their vote, rather than whether people liked or disliked the message.

Armed with the most persuasive message, Podhorzer taps into Catalist -- a for-profit data warehouse run by former Clinton administration officials Harold Ickes and Laura Quinn -- to build a profile of the people who responded most enthusiastically.

Once the profile is created, a mathematical model is built that allows Podhorzer to find other union members who would be persuadable with the same message.

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