It's easy to measure how the tough fight leading up to Tuesday's Pennsylvania primary has taken its toll on the candidates: In the past month, both Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama have seen their negatives rise.
There is good news in the prolonged battle for the nomination, too. Democratic registration rolls have swelled and voters in states that normally don't get a say in the primary process are welcoming the attention. But there is another, often overlooked, benefit of the long march to the 2008 nomination. As the contest moves from state to state, and canvassers knock on doors and make telephone calls, the campaigns are collecting valuable information about likely voters and laying essential groundwork for November.
"When the Clinton and Obama campaigns are making calls, they are not just asking, 'Are you going to support our candidates?'" said Michael McDonald, a professor at George Mason University who studies voter files and turnout patterns. "You're also asking questions about what issues are important to them, and profiling them in deeper ways. Once you've got them into the system, and you've got their email address, they're part of this organizing system the Democrats are building."
Even as he frets about avoiding a dramatic showdown at the party convention this August in Denver, Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, agrees that there is a big upside to the drawn-out primary contest. "I take issue with all of the hand-wringing that goes on in the 24-hour cable cycle about how the Democrats are beating each other up," Dean said. "That's a short-term problem."
"The long-term benefit is that in every state, including places like Pennsylvania and North Carolina where we're likely to have competitive races, we have on-the-ground operations which are vacuuming up enormous amounts of information."
The information -- everything from a voter's cell phone number and e-mail address to voting intentions and top issues, from newly registered Democrats and long-time voters -- is being channeled back into a central voter file organized by the Democratic National Committee. "We know where all the people we are going to have to get out in November are, now," Dean said. With John McCain's claim on the GOP nomination cemented back in February, Republicans can't say the same thing.
At the same time, Harold Ickes, a longtime Clintonite, has recently established Catalist, a for-profit venture that boasts of its "comprehensive, well-maintained national database of all voting-age individuals in the United States." Catalist is relying on an unusual business model and, with seed capital from George Soros and other wealthy donors, some critics are watching to see if it is truly a for-profit enterprise, or just a new way to help support liberal causes without being subject to campaign finance rules.
The firm expects to update its records with information from every state on the new Democrats who have registered to vote in this cycle, and add it to its collection of data on things like magazine subscriptions, shopping habits and more.
Despite Ickes' strong ties to Clinton, Catalist is trying to establish itself as a prime source for progressive candidates and causes. Laura Quinn, the group's CEO, said both the Clinton and Obama campaigns have been working with Catalist, "and both have been collecting and adding lots of data."
Taken together, party activists and outside analysts say the fresh data generated throughout the primary process and these new structures give Democrats a leg up over Republicans, who have traditionally outpaced them when it comes to collecting information and targeting voters.
"[Democrats are] really organizationally way ahead, and in much better detail, than in any previous cycle," said Peter Leyden, director of the New Politics Institute at NDN, a progressive think tank and advocacy group. "This is a greater benefit that the negative effects that go with this extended primary."
Dean has made the file a priority, working with state parties and spending more than $10m to build it and streamline the data. That information begins with voter registration data like name and address, and, in some states, race and gender. It is supplemented with other public records, such as voting history and hunting licenses, as well as mailing lists and other commercially available data. But it also is benefiting from simple legwork, the kind that energized Democrats have been carrying out across the country as the primary race has proceeded.
Allen McQuarrie, a retired teachers' union worker who lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania -- where Democrats tipped the balance, from a Republican advantage of 21,562 voters at the start of the year, to a Democratic edge of 3,472 voters at the start of this month -- did his part.
McQuarrie worked as a volunteer for the Obama campaign, carrying voter registration forms door-to-door, and handing them out at the library and the local commuter railroad station. "I think Obama has made Republicans feel welcomed," he said. "They seemed to feel like they found a home with him and that they could switch parties and not feel uncomfortable about it."
Each time a new registration form was completed, McQuarrie said it was photocopied at the local Obama headquarters before it was turned in to local election officials. That's standard operating practice, but with 300,000 new Democrats registered in the state since the start of the year, the information collected -- and entered into campaign databases -- is staggering.
McDonald said switching party registration and voting in a primary send strong signals about a voter's intentions. "Seeing this marker laid down in a primary that somebody will participate means that yes, they are definitely going to be there in the general election."
No matter who the Democratic nominee is, their campaign will have access to the DNC's file, and will likely tap these core voters, McDonald said. "Between now and the general election, they are going to go back and mine these people for volunteers and donations."
But while the data collected throughout the primaries will help identify reliable Democratic voters, it will also help the eventual Democratic nominee know which voters still need to be persuaded. "This information allows Democrats to shift their resources more toward expanding their base," McDonald said. "The McCain campaign is going to have to spend some resources just to identify its supporters."
Leyden, of the New Politics Institute, said the kind of data the Democratic candidates are collecting is central to the kind of next-generation campaign he expects in the fall. "You start with a beachhead, like a cell phone number," he said. "You get richer and richer data on that person, and you build a more complex relationship with them. It would not have happened if this had all been sown up on Super Tuesday."
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