Parties Are Tracking Your Habits

Times Staff Writers

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- At first glance, Felicia Hill seems to fit the profile of a loyal Democrat: She is African American, married to a General Motors union worker and voted for Dukakis, Clinton and Gore in past presidential elections.

But in the weeks before election day 2004, the suburban mother of two was deluged with telephone calls, invitations and specially targeted mailings urging her to support President Bush.

The intense Republican courtship of Hill, 39, was no coincidence.


A deeper look at her lifestyle and politics reveals a voter who might be persuaded to switch sides. Among the clues: she is a church member uneasy about abortion; she lives in a growing suburb and she sent her children to a private school.

Hill and millions of other would-be Bush backers in closely contested states were identified by a GOP database that culled information ranging from the political basics, like party registration, to the personal, such as the cars they drive, the drinks they buy, even the features they order on their phone lines. The “micro-targeting” effort was so effective that the party credited it with helping to secure Bush’s reelection.

In Ohio, which tipped the election to Bush, the Republican strategy helped boost African American support for the president by seven percentage points over his 2000 performance, securing the state for the president. It drew millions of Republican voters to the polls in every battleground state.

Nationally, Republicans said, the targeting produced a 10 percentage point increase for Bush among evangelicals, nine points among Latinos, four points in big cities, three points in labor-union households and five points among Catholics -- all groups that were wooed by both parties.

Both parties have long collected information on voters. But the sophistication of the GOP effort is now so clearly superior that it has given Republicans an edge in an area that had been a Democratic strength: identifying sympathetic voters and getting them to the polls.

Democrats will be especially vulnerable in the next two national election cycles: In 2006, they will have to defend more congressional and Senate seats than they did in 2004; and several states viewed as competitive in past presidential elections are increasingly viewed as GOP turf for 2008.


Hill said the campaign outreach effort had such an effect on her that she was unable to decide who to vote for until she was in the booth. She ultimately chose Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry over Bush. But Hill said she was now open to Republican arguments in a way she never was before.

For the first time, she sees the GOP as a place where black women can be comfortable

“I saw people I could relate to,” she said, describing conversations she had with Republican professional women during telephone outreach calls and at party events. During one campaign event in Dayton, the president was introduced by Hill’s friend Donald K. McLaurin, the black mayor of suburban Trotwood.

“I saw families there who seemed like our family, and I found that their ideology lined up with mine,” she said.

Such sentiments signal progress for the Republican Party as it seeks to achieve the goal set by White House strategist Karl Rove of building a majority that will last well into the 21st century.

Hill and others who either backed Kerry or didn’t vote are likely targets as the party prepares for midterm elections in 2006 and the presidential contest in 2008, a process that is moving full speed ahead at Republican National Committee headquarters and state party offices across the country.

Democratic strategists see hope in Bush’s falling approval ratings -- now consistently below 50% -- and the public’s declining support for key White House priorities such as revamping Social Security and pursuing the Iraq war.

In Ohio, they hope to benefit from a scandal over Republicans’ dubious investment of state funds. And Democrats have recently added field staffers in several states, including six in Ohio and three in West Virginia -- unusual moves in an off year.

But in the mechanics of modern party-building, Democrats acknowledge a serious lag that could prevent them from making gains even when public opinion and other factors are swinging in their direction.

“The Republicans have been working on this for a decade, and that’s why they” are defeating us, said Dennis L. White, the Democrats’ state party chairman in Ohio, referring to the GOP’s technological advantage. “We are still three years behind.”

The GOP’s mastery of data is changing the very nature of campaigning.

Rather than concentrating on building the widest possible support, the Republican Party now focuses on finding known and potential Republican voters, learning about their interests and concerns in unprecedented detail and then delivering to them a tailored message.

Both parties gather data on registered voters through public records such as voting history, voting registration rolls, driver’s and hunting licenses and responses to issue surveys. Consumer data, often gathered from supermarkets, liquor stores, online book vendors, drugstores and auto dealerships and used increasingly in marketing campaigns, also are finding their way into the voter files kept by both parties.

But the depth of the Republican files is greater -- they have been around longer and include more information -- increasing the data’s predictive power. The Republicans also have more money to buy top-notch consumer data from, say, supermarket chains and other retailers.

Republican and Democratic strategists refuse to reveal much detail about the consumer information they collect. But strategists did offer some examples.

Bourbon drinkers are more likely to be Republicans; gin is a Democratic drink. Military history buffs are likely to be social conservatives. Volvos are preferred by Democrats; Ford and Chevy owners are more likely Republican. Phone customers who have call waiting lean heavily Republican.

Strategists said that cross-referencing such seemingly disparate data can produce powerful correlations -- and draw a roadmap for targeting messages to specific voters. Where a voter lives, what car she drives and what magazines she reads are all used to predict her position on specific issues.

That approach was particularly effective for Republicans in New Mexico, where Bush gained 12 percentage points among Latinos in 2004, helping to secure his narrow victory there.

The GOP’s micro-targeting advantage marks a historic shift, strategists said. Republicans traditionally faced a stiffer challenge finding their voters, who tended to live in rural and exurban areas, while Democratic voters were often concentrated in urban precincts.

The Republicans gained the lead in targeting voters in part because the party in 2004 insisted on maintaining centralized control over its data file.

By contrast, the Democrats permitted state parties to set up their own systems and relied on labor and activist groups to get out the vote -- groups that typically established their own voter data files. Under federal election law, independent groups cannot freely share such data with political parties.

“These groups did a lot, but much of it was redundant and unconnected,” said Michael Erlandson, who recently stepped down as Democratic Party chairman in Minnesota. “The day after the election, many of these groups leave the state, and their voter files and experience leave with them.”

Despite those disadvantages, Democrats are working to become more competitive.

Corey Dillon, executive director of the Democratic Party in Missouri, said her office’s top priority was building the voter database -- and learning how to squeeze every potential advantage from the information.

Missouri was once home turf for Democrats, but the state was an easy win for Bush. Republicans control the state Capitol.

“I’m guessing we have access to the same information they do, but the difference is in how we use it,” Dillon said.

Strategy aside, Democrats face an uphill struggle in 2006. They will have to defend at least three open Senate seats, and at least two Democratic incumbents are running in states -- Nebraska and North Dakota -- that Bush won handily.

Republicans, meanwhile, have one open Senate seat and fewer Republicans are up for reelection.

The races are stacked in the Republicans’ favor in the House too. Although 41 House Democrats represent districts carried last year by Bush, according to a GOP analysis, fewer than 20 Republicans come from districts carried by Kerry.

And Republican officials are wasting little time honing the latest tactics in real-world situations -- deploying Republican National Committee staffers to local elections in key states in recent weeks to train workers and experiment with new approaches using their advanced database.

In April, as new Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean was building his leadership team, the RNC was helping a Missouri Republican win a state Senate seat in a Democratic-leaning district.

In Nebraska, home to a potentially competitive Senate race next year, the GOP sent in workers to bring Bush-Cheney reelection tactics to a Lincoln City Council race.

In the race this month for mayor of Meridian, Miss., the party picked nearly a dozen precincts where voter demographics could represent precincts in battleground states, then used phone calls to contact voters in one and door knocking to reach voters in the other. RNC officials are now analyzing the results to see which tactic was more effective.

And the Ohio GOP is planning to use an Aug. 2 special congressional election in suburban Cincinnati to refine get-out-the-vote techniques and test the power of the database.

“Every time we do this, we learn something new,” said Mike DuHaime, the RNC’s political director. “When you do things like this, winning buys you credibility [with local Republican activists]. We can now market this to other people in other parts of the country.”