Micro Machines

When Yair Ghitza first sat down with me this spring, he exhibited the kind of hopeful enthusiasm for politics one might expect from a 25-year-old whose Washington experience could still be measured in months. The computer science major from MIT, who got his start in politics as a 2004 Democratic National Convention volunteer, is an analyst at Copernicus Analytics, a political firm that specializes in campaign "microtargeting."

Sitting in front of a computer in a Washington, D.C., office, Ghitza brought up a PowerPoint slideshow chronicling the work Copernicus did for Tim Kaine during his successful run for the Virginia governorship last year. One slide depicted Loudoun County, one of the seven "battleground" counties targeted by the campaign and one in which Republican candidates have historically polled well. The county went for Bush 56 percent to 44 percent in 2004; Kaine won Loudoun by five points in 2005.

Before 2002, campaigns relied largely on a tried-and-true methodology -- identify voting precincts in which you historically receive 65 percent or more of the vote and turn out as many voters as possible. "It was all about Democratic- or Republican-performing districts," said Jason Miner, a former operative for the Democratic National Committee and now a private consultant. "You'd squeeze it like a sponge to get every drop out of it." But new computer techniques have allowed campaign consultants to find pockets of support in even the most hostile of environs.

Ghitza's map of Loudoun showed no precincts in which the Democratic performance was expected to reach 65 percent. Then he clicked open another slide to reveal the locations of the top 20 percent of Kaine supporters; suddenly the map was awash in pockets of blue. Every click of the mouse zoomed in on a smaller portion. Click, zoom -- and we were looking at individual neighborhoods. Click, zoom -- and blue dots appeared on single blocks, each one an individual voter. The data was used for direct mail and door-to-door canvassing. In the seven battleground counties in Virginia, in 65 percent precincts, there were 84,000 targets, but the model identified 200,000 in those same counties -- an increase of 116,000 targets in a race decided by 113,000 votes. "For the first time in Virginia history, they actually went into very low-performing Democratic precincts -- as low as 24 percent -- and came out happy," Ghitza says.

While microtargeting has become something of a political buzzword since the 2004 election, this year marks the first time it will play a role in congressional races for both parties. Since the Bush-Cheney campaign demonstrated just how powerful the technology can be, the Democrats have desperately worked to catch up in time for the midterm elections.

With less than two weeks before Election Day, Democrats are increasingly convinced that the Republican edge has been whittled down enough to forestall a repeat of 2004, when the Republican "72-hour task force" -- the massive turnout machine that mobilizes conservative voters in the final days of the campaign -- took Democrats by surprise. Campaign operatives report that the data and microtargeting technology this year is proving far superior to the 2004 effort, when flawed lists and software glitches left Democrats scrambling. "I don't think anyone has argued that the gap is closed, but I think almost anyone would agree that the gap is closing," said one microtargeting consultant.

In 2002, for the first time in years, the Republicans defeated the Democrats at the ground game. By the 2004 election, the RNC was polishing its approach and garnering key votes in states like Ohio and Michigan. Meanwhile, the Democrats' master voter list for last-minute outreach, Datamart, was proving less effective than they had hoped, and thanks to technical difficulties it was often inaccessible to campaign staffers. Some, officials say, were even unable to print lists for last-minute door-to-door visits the night before the election. When Bush prevailed, Democrats were left to wonder, again, what exactly had gone wrong. Pundits pointed to a host of explanations, but the recipe for victory may very well have rested inside a massive computer database the Republicans call Voter Vault, which contains hundreds of individual bits of information -- voting history, demographics, consumer data -- about millions of voters and forms the basis for the GOP's microtargeting efforts.

Microtargeting uses powerful computer models and enormous quantities of consumer and demographic data to predict how likely it is an individual will vote for a candidate. Consultants use poll results to predict how similar people would have answered the same questions -- a kind of virtual poll of the entire electorate. By providing a "score" of support for every voter, microtargeting permits campaigns to target potential voters anywhere -- and tailor messages specifically for their concerns. Environmentalists get literature about conservation; gun enthusiasts receive phone calls touting the candidate's support of the Second Amendment. It has proven particularly useful in states like Virginia or Michigan, where party registration is not recorded. The technology has transformed every aspect of traditional campaigning, from fund-raising to direct mail to field operations. "It's been an immense difference," said Mike Podhorzer, the deputy political director for the AFL-CIO, which has dedicated $40 million to GOTV efforts this cycle. "It's basically doubled or more the value of every dollar we spend on direct communication."

Democrats across the country are growing more convinced they have transformed microtargeting from a liability into a weapon. In Arizona, where more than 600,000 independent voters may hold the key to victory for Senate challenger Jim Pederson against incumbent Republican John Kyl, the party is using microtargeting to reach independents. "I would say a majority of the voters we are targeting fall outside of traditional stronghold Democratic precincts," said Michael Frias, who is running the coordinated campaign for Arizona Democrats. Canvassers going door to door have Palm Pilots loaded with a "journal" for each voter the campaigns contact; the information, such as the issues the voters say are most important, are uploaded instantly to the voter list for future reference. Arizona Democrats are also hoping challenger Harry Mitchell can take J.D. Hayworth's congressional seat. Ken Strasma, whose Strategic Telemetry microtargeting firm is working with more than 60 races in 29 states, said southwestern independents are going Democratic in droves, according to his models. The most surprising group may be married women with children, who traditionally vote Republican but are abandoning the GOP this year.

In Pennsylvania, party spokesman Abe Amoros said the coordinated campaign has made more than 500,000 voter contacts so far as part of an effort to convince at least 10 percent of the 2.3 million Democrats who typically stay away from the polls in off-year elections to cast ballots this year. "We haven't had any complaints thus far in 2006" regarding the DNC data, he said, in contrast to 2004.

In New York's conservative 24th district, where Democrat Michael Arcuri is battling Republican Raymond Meier to succeed retiring moderate Republican Sherwood Boehlert, the campaign is attacking middle-of-the-road Republicans and independents. Hayley Rumback, an Arcuri campaign spokeswoman, said that so far the voter lists and data analysis is progressing exceedingly well. (They'll need it: The National Republican Congressional Committee has poured $1.4 million into the district in the last two months, landing it in the top 10 in terms of NRCC money.)

With a polarized electorate and in a nonpresidential year, when turnout tends to drop, locating potential voters effectively pays enormous dividends. Strasma said the races that have recently come into play are generally heavily Republican, exurban districts, where microtargeting's ability to find pockets of potential Democratic voters is crucial. "On a close race, it can swing 3 to 5 percent of the vote," he said. "It's been going very well."

Nevertheless, Democrats acknowledge that the looming specter of the Republican turnout machine, which has dominated for two election cycles, is cause for concern. The GOP, after all, has been collecting data from state parties for several cycles now, and the organizational prowess of the RNC is something that Democrats openly envy.

What's more, there are signs the Democrats remain somewhat fractured, as compared with the Republicans, whose centralized organization largely explains their recent successes. The feud between Congressman Rahm Emanuel, who heads the DCCC, and DNC head Howard Dean has led the DCCC to hire turnout whiz Michael Whouley to run its own field operation separate from the DNC. It's hard to imagine such discord on the GOP side: Ask National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Carl Forti about turnout efforts this fall, for instance, and you'll be referred to the RNC.

Meanwhile, some Democrats are taking matters into their own hands. Last year, Laura Quinn, an architect of the Democrats' data infrastructure under previous DNC head Terry McAuliffe, and Harold Ickes, former deputy chief of staff under Bill Clinton and current adviser to Sen. Hillary Clinton, founded a firm called Data Warehouse. (Quinn is also a founding principal of Copernicus.) Now called Catalist, the organization spent an estimated $10 million constructing a vast national voter database that has proven useful to progressive third-party groups, such as AFL-CIO, NARAL Pro-Choice America and MoveOn.org, as well as to some campaign consultants. But a DNC official bristled at the suggestion that Catalist's data compares to that of the DNC, pointing out that the voter list of 2004 -- built by Quinn and others under McAuliffe's leadership -- was fatally flawed.

The DNC itself has worked to improve its systems. "The quality of the data was not very high last cycle," one DNC official said. "There were people in Florida who were in the database living in the city of Fort and the state of Lauderdale." In 2005, DNC consultants, under Dean's leadership, systematically reviewed and reworked the voter file and microtargeting project, one official said. "I'm very confident that the data we're providing is as good or better than any data out there," said a DNC operative.

The DNC has also taken a page out of the Republican playbook in exerting more control over state parties. This spring, the DNC struck deals with more than 45 state parties to swap data for voter lists, though state parties still control the sale of the data to presidential wannabes. That should go a long way toward building an effective national voter file. And, for the first time, the DNC has generated in-house computer modeling for voter populations in five to 10 states.

In the end, it remains difficult to know for sure whether Democrats' cautious optimism is justified -- the evidence may not be fully entered until Nov. 7. And the final piece of proof may just be the next occupant of the White House.

Joseph Ax is a reporter for The Record in New Jersey.

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