Aug. 28 Has Room for Another Milestone

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.

"The big change is you think about individuals and everything that implies," Podhorzer says. "You take people as they are, not with your preconceived notions."

It's microtargeting -- the art/science of using scads of consumer data to better communicate effective messages to voters -- on steroids. And Podhorzer, in the words of Quinn, is "John the Baptist."

That may be a bit much. But when an organization as large as the AFL-CIO adopts this sort of approach to talking to voters, others pay attention. Guided by data-driven politics, Podhorzer and the AFL-CIO plan to spend more than $50 million in 24 states considered central not only to the presidential race but also to congressional candidates. If the technique works, it may be old hat by 2012.

For Podhorzer, it's a no-brainer. Targeting effective messages with his data-driven model aims to ensure that the millions being spent on direct mail and phone calls to union members are not wasted. And the success of the approach in the business world -- credit card companies, among others, have long employed this approach to broaden their customer base -- gives Podhorzer confidence that the political world is simply late to the game.

"Politics has built this silo around it that has kept out an awful lot of interesting tools and research that is very effective in other areas of the world," he says.


Jamie Smith, a constant presence at Hillary Clinton's side during the New York senator's campaign for president, has landed in the office of Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a supporter of Barack Obama during the primaries. Of Smith, who will be communications director for the senator from West Virginia, Rockefeller said: "She brings with her impressive credentials, invaluable experience and a strong commitment to serving West Virginia."

Nine days: All eyes in the political world will be on the Democratic National Convention in Denver. But make sure to keep an eye (if you happen to have an extra) on the congressional primaries in Alaska. Scandal-tarred Sen. Ted Stevens (R) and Rep. Don Young (R) both face peril.

16 days: Actor George Clooney is slated to host a fundraiser for Barack Obama's campaign in Switzerland. The Republican attack ad almost writes itself.

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