Election 2004 - IT on the Campaign Trail

Five months from now, President George Bush and Sen. John Kerry will wage their final battle for the White House. The race will ultimately be decided by which candidate (and which party) can mobilize more of its supporters from the time the voting booths open at dawn on the East Coast until they close in Hawaii 19 hours later. And who does this best depends on IT.

In this year’s presidential election, political operatives are relying more than ever on CRM-type systems to comb voters’ histories and demographic data to find those supporters who will vote for and perhaps contribute to their cause.

To paraphrase James Carville, "It’s the database, stupid."

Both parties have invested millions in central, state-of-the-art data warehouses, data mining software and Web-based user interfaces, creating arsenals of marketing tools that rival those of large corporations. The Republicans, who started building this capability in the mid-1990s, got a jump on the Democrats, who have raced to catch up since 2000. By their own admission, the Democrats still lack some of the capabilities that the GOP already has in place, including the ability to give every field worker in every state online access to voter information. However, says Laura Quinn, managing partner with QRS Newmedia, who developed the Democratic National Committee’s post-2000 IT strategy, the Democrats couldn’t think of winning without the investments the party has made to date.

Regardless of who’s ahead at this particular juncture, the party regulars agree on one thing: The 2004 presidential race may well hinge on how the donkey and the elephant use IT.

Mass Media Burnout

Candidates for national office and their respective parties spend fortunes to market themselves to voters through television, mailings, telemarketing and door-to-door canvassing. Bush spent $186 million to win his first term in 2000, while Gore spent $120 million, according to the campaign finance website OpenSecrets.org. Just like corporate marketers, political persuaders want to spend their money most efficiently by targeting people most likely to vote for their candidate. "Politicos are fond of saying that a campaign is a one-day sale," says Carol Darr, director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at The George Washington University. If a candidate can’t get people to the polls on that day, he’ll be out of business.

Operatives want to focus their firepower on two groups of voters: Those who (like a company’s highly valued customers) are already in their camp, and those who (because of their views and preferences) can be won over. According to a poll published in March by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, undecided voters account for 29 percent of the electorate, but a mere 6 percent are truly on the fence. Most already lean toward either Bush or Kerry, but still need to be persuaded. According to a recent analysis by the Los Angeles Times, the presidency will probably be decided in a dozen or fewer swing states?including Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania?that in 2000 chose either Bush or Gore by margins of 6 percent or less.

Before radio and television, every campaign depended on personal contact with voters. The most important investment a campaign made was in shoe leather. "People would show up on the doorstep," says Laurie Moskowitz, a consultant who ran field operations for the Democrats in 2000. But in the 1960s, the mass media began to interpose itself between campaign and voter, particularly in national elections. Candidates, advised by a growing mob of media consultants, tailored their messages for TV and built campaign strategies around advertising markets. They used consumer and census information to target voters by demographic slices?middle-class white men, African-Americans, suburban soccer moms and so on. "There was a de-emphasis on old-fashioned, grassroots campaigning," says James Gimpel, a political scientist and voter behavior expert at the University of Maryland, who consults with Republicans on how to use demographic data.

This media-focused strategy resulted in sweeping demographic slices, which led to homogenized messages that failed to inspire a lot of voters. Consequently, they tuned out. Between 1952 and 1972, 60 percent or more of the electorate regularly voted for president. But since 1972, the turnout of eligible voters for presidential elections has reached 60 percent only once, when Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 (60.6 percent of eligible voters went to the polls that year). Voters, sophisticated in the ways of mass marketing, "find it easy to blow off slick advertising," explains Gimpel.

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