The Battle for Control
WASHINGTON -- As Democrats drive to extend their power in Congress, holding on to Debbie Stabenow’s Senate seat is a must. And the Michigan incumbent is currently ahead in the polls.
But Republican strategists are working hard to upset Stabenow, in part through a low-profile appeal to a group that most politicians rarely think of as a voting bloc -- snowmobilers.
And the stealth campaign to woo the thousands of working-class, historically Democratic Michiganders whose cold-weather passion is snowmobiles is just one small example of a technique known as “micro-targeting” that GOP strategists are using across the country as they try to pull off another election day victory against the odds.
By most measures, the November elections offer Democrats their best chance in years. If anti-Republican sentiment turns out to be a tidal wave, strategic and tactical brilliance may not be enough to protect the GOP majorities in Congress.
But if control of Congress comes down to three or four dozen closely contested races, as now seems likely, then micro-targeting and the other technologies that Republicans are using in battleground states could make a difference.
The GOP system -- built around a database nicknamed Voter Vault -- combines huge amounts of demographic, financial and other personal information on individual voters with the data-mining techniques used by direct-mail advertisers to deliver surgically targeted appeals to voters identified as likely to respond, including many who might be considered part of the Democratic base.
In Michigan, for example, the GOP contacted snowmobilers by mail, telephone or other personal communication suggesting that Democrats’ environmental views stood in the way of greater opportunities for snowmobiling.
Though details of the GOP system are secret, snowmobilers and other categories of voters are identified from such diverse sources as credit card transactions, product warranty files, magazine subscription lists, consumer surveys, vehicle registrations and other public records.
Going back at least to the 2002 elections, the Republicans’ use of technology, coupled with elaborate computer profiles that make educated guesses about individuals’ political inclinations, has demonstrated its power in close races.
In the recent Rhode Island Senate primary, the GOP assessed reams of data -- from prior voting histories to signatures on petitions -- to identify Democrats and independents whose profiles suggested they might support beleaguered Republican incumbent Lincoln Chafee; his victory improved GOP chances of holding the seat in November. In June, the same technology helped the GOP retain the House seat vacated by convicted felon Randall “Duke” Cunningham of Rancho Santa Fe.
Democratic strategists understand the power of the new technology and techniques, and they have scrambled to develop their own micro-targeting capabilities. The Democratic National Committee is deploying a new system in six states, and another system will be available in 20 or so others.
With the November elections only seven weeks away, however, many Democrats concede they are far behind -- their efforts hamstrung by a late start, arguments over tactics, personal feuds and divisions inside the party’s leadership.
The GOP system was developed by the Republican National Committee with the encouragement of White House political strategist Karl Rove.
In addition to locating potentially sympathetic voters, it proved more effective than traditional get-out-the-vote schemes in 2002 and 2004 in making sure they got to the polls.
In their search for voters, Republican strategists can quickly pull up information not only about voting histories, age, address and marital status, but also consumer habits, vehicle ownership, magazine subscriptions, church membership, hobbies, major purchases -- even whether a household prefers bourbon over gin. (Bourbon drinkers tend to be Republican; gin is more often a Democrat’s drink).
The data and the profiles, held in a centralized system to maintain quality control and help strategists monitor overall trends, are continually updated and massaged on the basis of contacts with voters.
In Michigan alone, Republican workers are making 20,000 telephone contacts with voters per day; Democrats also have telephone banks, but they are not integrated into a system as advanced as that of the Republicans.
Because both parties shroud their efforts in secrecy, it can be difficult to compare their programs, especially in individual races. Still, the evidence suggests the Democrats are substantially behind in micro-targeting and related technologies.
The Democratic National Committee will have a test version of its micro-targeting models available in only half a dozen states; the basic GOP system has been in place nationwide since the campaigns began.
“We are not where we need to be,” says Maren Hesla, who handles voter outreach for Emily’s List, a liberal group that is part of a coalition helping Democrats develop more sophisticated grass-roots operations, including micro-targeting, in about two dozen states.
Hesla insists that her party “will have enough going on in enough key states to surprise people about what we are able to accomplish.”
The question is whether it will be enough to help Democrats achieve a breakthrough victory.
So serious do some Democratic leaders consider the technology gap that they have begun devising their own separate systems, especially for House and Senate races.
“It’s every man for himself,” said Donna Brazile, a longtime party strategist who managed Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign and is now working to unite party leaders behind a strategy for translating favorable opinion polls into victories.
Brazile, like Hesla, says she sees positive developments for Democrats, but she also worries that the party is behind.
Although micro-targeting may seem like inside baseball, activists in both parties say that the methods and technology Rove and others pioneered may revolutionize campaigns. They predict the new techniques will become as crucial in future campaigns as opinion polling -- virtually unheard of in congressional races four decades ago -- is today.
“The revolutionary change here is that Republicans ... are going after voters as individuals, as opposed to a census tract or a media market,” says Harold Ickes, a Democratic Party strategist.
Campaigns traditionally relied on geography or other broad indicators to target voters. Democrats, for example, would blanket predominantly African American neighborhoods because those populations had historically supported Democrats. Republicans would focus on suburbs, which were historically Republican.
Such targeting was far from precise. And many of the old targeting assumptions are less true now. Some suburbs have become more liberal as jobs spread beyond the central city. And enough African American voters peeled away from Democrat John F. Kerry in 2004 for Bush to retain the presidency.
Now, Republicans nationwide can identify approachable voters inside what had previously been seen as Democratic territory, then deliver appeals to them on issues that cut across party lines.
The system’s real power develops when complex algorithms are used to rate how likely individuals are to vote for particular Republican candidates.
Bruised by the power of the GOP system in 2004, Ickes commissioned a study in early 2005 that concluded: “The Republicans are light-years ahead of us. This is not rocket science, and we Democrats will get our clocks cleaned if we don’t catch up.”
A year later, Ickes launched his own effort to develop such resources with a new coalition of labor and activist groups. His $9-million project, active in two dozen states, is taking a leading role in making micro-targeting and other advanced technology available to Democrats.
Even combining this effort with that of the DNC, Democratic strategists lament that their party remains behind the GOP.
Looking at the technology available to Democrats in Michigan, where the party is at its most advanced, a Democratic coalition strategist said ruefully, “We can’t do snowmobilers.”
The snowmobiler appeal was developed by state GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis. Michigan has a higher proportion of snowmobilers than any other state. Anuzis says the “extreme environmental views” of Stabenow and incumbent Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm have hindered development and use of snowmobile trails.
Anuzis says that created an opening to reach out to snowmobile users -- many of whom belong to demographic groups often considered Democratic.
Similarly, Michigan Republicans have sent messages to African American households in predominantly Democratic inner-city Detroit extolling education plans that give parents more choice.
In the hottest congressional race in Minnesota, where the DNC and the Ickes group have developed micro-targeting capabilities, Democratic candidate Patty Wetterling has not yet begun using the technology but expects to start soon.
The campaign manager for Republican Michele Bachmann says the GOP system has proved to be “a critical asset.” Using Voter Vault’s ability to track voter preferences on hot issues, Bachmann’s campaign even identified households where one family member opposed abortion and the others did not. The campaign tailored different messages to different members of those households.
In GOP-dominant Tennessee, where Democrat Harold E. Ford Jr. is running even with the Republican candidate to succeed retiring Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Ford’s campaign obtained voter data files months ago from the DNC.
But the campaign had to hire its own consultants to develop the computer models necessary to use that data, while the Republican candidate enjoyed access to the full Voter Vault system that has been massaged and updated for years -- a potentially crucial difference in a race that is expected to be decided by the ground operations in the final days.
Surveying the Democrats’ effort to close the technology gap, veteran strategist Brazile insists her party is making gains. “Unfortunately,” she said, “it’s late and last-minute. We’re still perfecting drive-by campaigning.”