ST. PAUL, Minn. – It may seem like a distant memory now, but Democrats not so long ago dominated the battle between the parties to get their voters to the polls.
Over the past half-dozen years, Republicans have reinvented the system, using sophisticated computer modeling and vast amounts of consumer data. In 2002 and 2004, they demonstrated their newfound superiority – to the dismay of Democratic Party officials and their allies.
“It’s no secret that the other side figured this out a little sooner,” said Josh Syrjamaki, the state director of America Votes, an umbrella organization of labor and liberal interest groups. “They’ve had four to six years’ jump on us on this stuff … but we feel like we can start to catch up. I guess we’ll find out in about a month and a half how much we’ve caught up.”
On a recent afternoon in their third-floor office suite, Syrjamaki and Ed Coleman, the technology director for the Minnesota chapter of America Votes, were hunched over a laptop computer, teasing out information that Democrats hope will begin to narrow the sizable gap with the GOP.
The laptop linked them to a huge new database that holds the names, addresses, voting histories and consumer preferences of every Minnesota resident eligible – though not necessarily registered – to vote. That’s a weapon that allows them to identify, locate, contact and turn out likely Democratic voters who have been largely invisible to them in the past.
Increasingly, campaigns have begun identifying potential voters literally one by one, even if they live in areas dominated by the opposition party. Using surveys and modeling, consumer and political data, the parties convert the electorate into subgroups that turnout specialists call by names such as “Flag and Family Republicans,” “Education-Focused Democrats” and “Older Suburban Newshounds.”
This is known as microtargeting, and it turns traditional political mobilizing on its head by giving campaigns the opportunity to create virtual precincts of voters and poach on the opponent’s turf.
With the click of a mouse, a Democratic campaign operative can call up a list (and accompanying map) identifying by name and address voters who may live in a Republican precinct or county but who, by virtue of ideology, party identification, religion, favorite drink or make of car are more likely to vote Democratic.
In 2004, the biggest jump in GOP votes came in non-GOP precincts, according to former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie. “The biggest boost came from cities where Republican registration is like 20 or 25 percent,” he said.
These voters are often difficult to motivate, but both parties see them as critically important additions to the reliable voters they have concentrated on in the past.
The Republicans have attracted attention to their microtargeting skills by emphasizing the importance of consumer information in predicting voting patterns – Republicans prefer bourbon, for instance, while Democrats prefer gin.
Such lifestyle information is most helpful in tailoring messages for voters, though other information, such as party identification or frequency of church attendance, remains a more reliable predictor of how someone is likely to vote.
Harold Ickes, a driving force behind outside efforts to put Democrats back in the game, said Republicans have two clear advantages over the Democrats. First is a deeper and richer database, which improves the GOP’s ability to “model the electorate” – the term for identifying and classifying different voter blocs – and to tailor messages to individual voters. Second is a trained cadre of people who know how to make use of the databases.
“We are still behind the eight ball on that, and it will take us a handful of years to catch up,” Ickes said.