Customizing the Political Campaign
by Katie Finigan
These days, everything is customized. Amazon.com and iTunes have recommendations based on your past purchases. Grocery stores use cards to track your spending and issue coupons based on what you buy. Even internet banners are personalized. Take a look at the right side of the page next time you check your gmail; chances are the ads will relate to what’s in the email you’re reading.
Today’s corporations spend millions of dollars learning what you like, how you think and what sources of information you trust. Many stockpile information in massive electronic databases where it can be mined to target potential customers or sold to the highest bidder. Despite concerns about privacy and numerous other issues, data mining is on the rise. Advertisers want to get to know you better, but it’s not so they can be your friend. It’s so they can sell you their stuff.
Individualized marketing is working for advertisers, so the Republicans and the Democrats want a part of it, too. In the late 1990s, the Republican National Party, led by Karl Rove, began compiling a massive computerized list of voters. The Democrats jumped on the bandwagon a little later, but by 2001 they were pouring millions into creating their own list. The resulting databases, dubbed Voter Vault by the Republicans and Demzilla or DataMart by the Democrats, are bonanzas of voter information.
This isn’t your basic list of party members, and we’re not talking ordinary voter registration information either. It is estimated that each list contains 170 million names with between 200 and 400 items of information for each one. That means 79 percent of all U.S. citizens 18 years or older are in these databases. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in the 2004 election only 142 million people registered to vote, and 126 million actually showed up on Election Day. That means political parties are keeping track of all voters, all registered voters and 28 million people who aren’t even considering going to the polls.
Chances are if you’re of voting age, you’re on the list. I know I am. In the 2004 election I got three personal phone calls from my local Republican Party asking if I had mailed my absentee ballot yet. They knew I was voting absentee, but that’s probably easy to find out. Then I received an 8 x 10 color, glossy, “signed” photo of George and Laura Bush. My parents are Republicans, so that makes sense. But, the thing is, the picture was addressed to Katie, not Kathleen like it says on my voter registration and all my official documents. Katie. What my friends call me. Now that’s a party that takes the time to get to know you. That’s a party that has you in their system.
Besides my nickname, what else do they know? The answer: everything they can get their hands on. “We probably have a lot more information about the average voter than they care for us to have,” confessed Robert Bennett, chairman of the Republican Party in Ohio, to Time Magazine in 2004.
It’s hard to know the extent of the data the DNC and RNC have. Party officials don’t want to upset the public or give their opponents any tips, so they’re pretty quiet about the whole thing. “The Ohio Republican Party has a standing policy not to comment on political strategy,” the Ohio GOP replied when I contacted them. “We must respectfully decline your request for information.”
What we do know is that their information comes from a variety of different sources: voter registration cards, local party chapters, census data, credit reports, public records, organization rosters and the consumer information sold by many companies. In some cases, during election time, campaign volunteers will canvass areas and have casual face to face interactions with potential voters. They focus on general issues such as views on health care, abortion or gun control that can be useful for many elections. They get the voters’ opinions and then quickly enter the information into palm pilots that feed straight into the databases.
The categories of data range from your basic contact information, such as name, address, phone number, gender and political affiliation to more detailed data, including race, ethnicity, age, income, sexual preference, homeownership, boat ownership, occupation, education, marriages, religious affiliations, church attendance, children, gun licenses, purchasing habits, personal interests, voting history, charitable and political donations, magazine subscriptions and who knows what else.
Electronic data mining has become a multi-billion dollar industry, and while parties don’t disclose which companies they purchase information from, there are several likely options. ChoicePoint, a leading data mining company, sells information that is useful in pre-employment background checks, such as criminal records and insurance claims. Another well known database, ChexSystems, compiles banking records, and a third company, MIB Group Inc., short for the Medical Information Bureau, assembles medical records obtained from insurance companies.
The Republicans and Democrats both hire outside companies to construct their databases. The DNC paid Plus Three, self-described as a strategic marketing and technology company, 30 million dollars to create their DataMart. The Republicans hired Advanced Custom Software, which outsourced the production of Voter Vault to Maharashtra, India. These two firms specialize in targeted marketing for political campaigns, private corporations and non-profits.
Is a database really worth the millions being spent? Both parties hope so. Their ultimate goal is to sort through all that data and find correlations between voter lifestyles, habits, preferences and their likeliness to vote for a certain candidate. Is a reader of Rolling Stone more likely to vote Democrat? Are gun owners certain to vote Republican? Party officials sift through the information and rate the names to determine who does or doesn’t already support their candidate and who needs more persuasion. The Democrats assign people to one of nine categories: three, such as “college educated progressive,” that will vote Democrat; two, such as “social conservative” that are staunch Republicans; and four, including “social security voters,” “economically pressured” and “education first,” that are the cherished swing voters.
It’s all about psychology. If they get in your head, they know how to persuade you. Local campaign workers and elected officials receive passwords and can access this expanse of information from anywhere at any time. They can then use the data to target specific populations in vital locations with highly customized messages. They can infiltrate the media they trust and find the fastest, cheapest and most effective way to sell their candidate.
And it seems to work. In recent campaigns, especially the 2004 presidential race, the Republican Party used Voter Vault to mobilize small, crucial sets of voters.
In Pennsylvania, Bush supporters targeted conservative Catholics setting precinct by precinct quotas and rewarding volunteers for reaching them. In Wisconsin, they went after members of hunting clubs. In Cleveland, they held a Bush rally entirely in Russian to gain the vote of a small population of Russian Jewish immigrants. They also specially selected 10,000 African American community leaders who agreed to praise the Republican Party in their communities in exchange for VIP treatment and a chance to do a meet and greet with the President. Their effort succeeded; the African American vote in Ohio doubled from the 2000 to the 2004 election.
Demzilla hasn’t been so effective. Having had a late start, it doesn’t have the breadth and quality of information that Voter Vault does. The structure of the DNC is more a loosely knit group of local chapters than a strict hierarchy like that of the Republican Party. In the past, the Democrat’s state and city chapters have compiled their own lists of voters in their districts and sold the list to Democratic presidential candidates every four years. Local chapters risk losing that source of income if information is shared in a national database. In 2006, there have been reports that Demzilla has been abandoned due to slow software and inaccurate data. Nevertheless, the Democrats are now creating the National Voter Database, which they hope to have running by the next election.
Advocates of new databases predict that they will save hundreds of thousands of dollars every year in campaign costs. Party money can be spent only to persuade likely supporters of a candidate. Democrats will no longer have to waste resources targeting un-persuadable Republicans and vice-versa. Instead, more time and money can be spent targeting crucial undecided voters in swing states.
But critics argue that the implications for democracy can’t be good. In a 2003 interview with Newhouse News Service, Beth Givens, director of Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, worried about the threats of the new technology. “Think about the possibilities for abuse, for manipulation—democracy suffers when you tailor your message 12 different ways depending on who you want to reach out to.”
In our increasingly polarized political climate it doesn’t help matters if the Democrats are only hearing Democratic messages and the Republicans are only exposed to Republican messages. Critics worry that customized messages create an information gap. A 35-year-old single mother might only get mail about education and healthcare, while a 65-year-old CEO will only get calls about tax breaks and support for industry.
In the two weeks leading up to the election, my family, which usually votes conservative, gets an average of two to three phone calls a day from the Republicans but hardly any from the Democrats. We get the Republican message pounded into our head, and we don’t even get to hear what the other side has to say.
There are privacy issues, too. That campaign phone call or direct mailing you receive didn’t arrive at your house by chance. The people who sent it know a lot more about you than you think. Most voters don’t know how much information their party has on them, and many wouldn’t like it if they did. Plus, the potential for abuse is enormous. Voter Vault and Demzilla are password protected, but legislators and certain campaign volunteers across the country have access to them. In a case of password abuse in Evansville, Indiana, an unauthorized group of people gained access to Voter Vault and altered a legislator’s profile from pro-life to pro-choice. The backlash forced the local GOP chairman to resign last May. This was an isolated case, but who knows what would happen if someone with more malicious intentions got hold of a password.
Campaigns are becoming an information war, and we’re caught in the middle. Do personalized messages educate voters or manipulate them? Is all this technology engaging voters, or is it leading them by the nose to the polls? It’s hard to say what the long-term effects on democracy and privacy will be, but now it’s not just Big Brother and the NSA; it’s the GOP and DNC who are watching you.
Katie Finigan is a senior culture and communications major who’s watching you when you’re not watching her. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.