In­ter­net tech­nol­ogy up­root­ing tra­di­tional cam­paign stump

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Joyce Howard Price

Mail­ing lists and fliers have be­come part of the cam­paign stone age. En­ve­lope-stuffers have given way to tech-savvy blog­gers, and vol­un­teers are just as likely to make their own can­di­date videos as they are to can­vass neigh­bor­hoods for vot­ers.

Wel­come to the brave new world of cam­paign­ing, but don’t get used to it. It can change at the click of a mouse, thanks to the ever-in­creas­ing use of on­line tools and other elec­tronic gad­getry.

“More and more, peo­ple are get­ting their news from a variety of out­lets, in­clud­ing the In­ter­net,” said Sta­cie Pax­ton, press sec­re­tary for the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee. “And whether it’s YouTube, blogs or Web sites, the In­ter­net is trans­form­ing the way we do pol­i­tics.

“It’s given the av­er­age per­son a much louder voice in the po­lit­i­cal process and cre­ated an op­por­tu­nity to have more of a two-way con­ver­sa­tion with vot­ers,” she said. “The two-way con­ver­sa­tion is crit­i­cal be­cause it in­vests peo­ple in the process.”

In re­cent years, can­di­dates have been turn­ing more and more to Web tech­nol­ogy — blog­ging and other on­line com­mu­ni­ca­tions plat­forms, such as in­stant mes­sag­ing, e-mail­ing, text mes­sag­ing and so­cial net­work­ing — to or­ga­nize cam­paigns, build sup­port and let the pub­lic know where they stand.

And all this in­stancy has an­other much-val­ued at­tribute.

“The oper­a­tive word for the In­ter­net is free,” Ms. Pax­ton said.

Both Democrats and Repub­li­cans have non­pub­lic on­line na­tional voter­reg­istry data­bases, which al­low them to sync data quickly to give them pre­cise in­for­ma­tion about po­ten­tial vot­ers and sup­port­ers, which they can share with state par­ties.

They also of­fer on­line in­stru­ments that help peo­ple con­nect on is­sues, with the hope of lead­ing them to or­ga­nize ral­lies, re­cep­tions or other events.

“We con­tinue to up­grade our ef­forts ev­ery year to bring in new tech­nol­ogy that is ef­fec­tive,” said Chad Barth, a staffer in the Na­tional Repub­li­can Com­mit­tee’s strat­egy de­part­ment.

Ms. Pax­ton ac­knowl­edged that, for a time, Democrats were try­ing to play catch-up with Repub­li­cans in cam­paign tech­nol­ogy.

“But we now be­lieve we are at least where the Repub­li­cans are, and we think we’ve sur­passed them,” she said, cit­ing the Demo­cratic sweeps in the Novem­ber midterm elec­tions. The mi­cro tar­get

Think­ing big tech­no­log­i­cally re­ally means think­ing small. Very small.

“The big­gest cam­paign tech­nol­ogy that’s out there is [on­line] tar­get­ing tech­nol­ogy that can find peo­ple on a par­tic­u­lar block,” who are likely to vote in a cer­tain way or be­come ac­tive in a cam­paign, said Erick Erick­son, man­ag­ing ed­i­tor of Reds­tate.com, a pop­u­lar con­ser­va­tive blog.

“They have taken na­tional voter­reg­istry tech­nol­ogy and brought it down to the lo­cal level. Now you are bet­ter able to pin­point sup­port­ers than in the past, and you can get very spe­cific in­for­ma­tion about a per­son.”

For ex­am­ple, in a mat­ter of sec­onds, cam­paigns can find out what church a po­ten­tial voter at­tends and how of­ten he at­tends, plus do a quick check to see if the same per­son is a mem­ber of the Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion or sub­scribes to hunt­ing mag­a­zines.

Per­haps even more tell-tale, the data show how the per­son voted in re­cent elec­tions.

“More and more can­di­dates are seek­ing a bet­ter-de­fined pool of vot­ers,” said Mr. Erick­son, who is also an elec­tion lawyer and a Repub­li­can po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tant.

Chuck DeFeo, who man­aged the Bush/Cheney re-elec­tion cam­paign in 2004, said this tech­nol­ogy, called “mi­cro­tar­get­ing,” was used “very suc­cess­fully” by the Repub­li­can Party three years ago to find vot­ers.

“It in­volves tak­ing com­mer­cially avail­able data and com­bin­ing them with voter files [. . . ] it will con­tinue to be per­fected in 2008,” he said.

Ms. Pax­ton of the DNC said the Democrats “did a pilot project in mi­cro­tar­get­ing” in Min­nesota in 2006. “Mi­cro­tar­get­ing can make a dif­fer­ence in very tight races. It be­comes most cru­cial in states such as Min­nesota that don’t have party IDs to help whit­tle down” voter pools to find the best prospects for sup­port.

Mr. Erick­son said hav­ing the kind of de­tailed in­for­ma­tion mi­cro­tar- get­ing can pro­vide is use­ful in help­ing can­di­dates woo the es­ti­mated “4 [per­cent] to 6 per­cent of vot­ers who are up for grabs” in an elec­tion.

Both Repub­li­cans and Democrats op­er­ate huge voter data­bases, named Voter Vault and VoteBuilder, re­spec­tively.

“DNC Chair­man Howard Dean has made a tremen­dous in­vest­ment in [im­prov­ing] voter-file data. We’ve in­vested over $8 mil­lion,” Ms. Pax­ton said.

The RNC de­clines to say how much it has spent to­ward that end.

In Fe­bru­ary, the DNC an­nounced it had signed a deal with a firm called Voter Ac­ti­va­tion Net­work (VAN) to cre­ate a “state-of-the art na­tion­wide voter file,” which the party said “will en­able users to more eas­ily and ef­fec­tively sync data au­to­mat­i­cally and fa­cil­i­tate the swap­ping of data be­tween state par­ties and the DNC.”

“We’ve also made sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ment of the re­li­a­bil­ity of the data in VoteBuilder,” Ms. Pax­ton said.

She said an ex­ten­sive “cleanup” of out-of-date ad­dresses, phone num­bers and other in­for­ma­tion about Mon­tana vot­ers con­trib­uted to the nar­row Novem­ber elec­tion vic­tory of Sen. Jon Tester, a Demo­crat.

“He won by 3,000 votes,” Ms. Pax­ton said.

She said VoteBuilder will pro­vide “state par­ties and can­di­dates the most up-to-date and ac­cu­rate voter data avail­able.”

As an ex­am­ple, she said, the DNC will be able to cre­ate an up­dated na­tion­wide list of voter con­tacts daily. In the past, state Demo­cratic par­ties paid to use the DNC’s voter-reg­istry data, but now they are get­ting free ac­cess.

Both par­ties pro­vide vary­ing de­grees of ad­vice at their re­spec­tive Web sites on how in­di­vid­u­als can be­come in­volved in a cam­paign. The Democrats, at Democrats.org, are par­tic­u­larly proud of an ini­tia­tive they call “Par­tyBuilder,” a set of on­line tools they say is “mov­ing peo­ple from e-mail and Web sites to can­vasses and ral­lies.”

“Par­tyBuilder isn’t the typ­i­cal on­line tool set. In­di­vid­ual users con­trol most of the ac­tiv­ity from blog­ging, to set­ting up and man­ag­ing groups or ac­tivists, to or­ga­niz­ing and man­ag­ing real-world events, to fundrais­ing — Democrats are en­trusted to build the space and the party,” the DNC says.

The RNC also de­scribes its on­line guid­ance in this area, found at Ac­tion Cen­ter at GOP.com, as “cut­ting-edge.”

“This model of find­ing vot­ers (and vol­un­teers) wher­ever they live is very pow­er­ful,” said Mr. DeFeo, who is now vice pres­i­dent and gen­eral man­ager of Town­hall.com, an­other In­ter­net fo­rum for con­ser­va­tive voices. YouTube and the blog

Re­gard­less of who cap­tures his re­spec­tive party’s nom­i­na­tion, there’s al­ready a new face that will be front and cen­ter in the 2008 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. Meet YouTube. “Dis­tri­bu­tion chan­nels like YouTube did not ex­ist in 2004,” Mr. DeFeo said. YouTube, which Google re­cently pur­chased for $1.6 bil­lion, is a free video-view­ing Web site with the po­ten­tial to help or harm a can­di­date.

As Mr. Erick­son said: “Any­one with a cam­corder can now go to a po­lit­i­cal event, and if some­one there says some­thing stupid, it will be on the In­ter­net for the world to see in less than two hours.”

And then there are blog­gers who con­stantly post their writ­ings and opin­ions on the In­ter­net via Web logs; that is, in­stant words in­stead of in­stant video.

“There are now 18 mil­lion blogs,” Mr. Erick­son said. “Of large po­lit­i­cal blogs, there are now four or five on the left, and two to three dozen on the right.”

Mr. DeFeo said, “3,300 con­ser­va­tives are blog­ging on Town­Hall.com.”

There has been a “pro­lif­er­a­tion of Web video” sites in the past three years, he said, and an “in­creased abil­ity of real vot­ers to con­sume it.”

When po­lit­i­cal can­di­dates get am­bushed with a video from the past or present, he said, they need to be able to re­act im­me­di­ately.

For­mer Mas­sachusetts Gov. Mitt

Rom­ney, a Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial con­tender, made a fast come­back early in his cam­paign, when YouTube aired a video from 1994. In the video, Mr. Rom­ney who was then a U.S. Se­nate can­di­date, said in a de­bate he sup­ported abor­tion and the right of ho­mo­sex­u­als to be Boy Scout lead­ers.

To pro­tect his bid as a con­ser­va­tive pres­i­den­tial can­di­date, Mr. Rom­ney re­sponded to this un­wanted his­tory. Within hours, he was on his own Web site, say­ing his lib­eral po­si­tions on those is­sues had been wrong.

It’s the quick­est way to reach the most peo­ple.

“There are 180 mil­lion peo­ple on­line in the United States to­day — sev­eral mil­lion more than in 2004, when 130 mil­lion Amer­i­cans voted,” Mr. DeFeo said.

He pre­dicts on­line cam­paign par­tic­i­pa­tion “could ac­tu­ally dou­ble by 2008.” Path­way to the peo­ple

Still, the key to any suc­cess­ful cam­paign comes down to peo­ple — more specif­i­cally, vot­ers.

Mr. DeFeo shares Ms. Pax­ton’s view that the In­ter­net is “low­er­ing bar­ri­ers to par­tic­i­pa­tion” in the po­lit­i­cal process.

WeTheCi­ti­zens LLC, an At­lanta firm started in 2004, used the on­line strat­egy of so­cial net­work­ing, which they call “so­cial mo­bi­liza­tion,” to re­cruit 27,000 vol­un­teers for Ge­or­gia Gov. Sonny Per­due’s suc­cess­ful 2006 re-elec­tion bid.

WeTheCi­ti­zens, founded by Caleb Clark, 25, did this by adopt­ing the suc­cess­ful tech­niques of Web sites such as MyS­pace and Face­book, where like-minded per­sons so­cial­ize through e-mails, blogs and other means, and ap­ply­ing them for po­lit­i­cal pur­poses.

Mr. Clark made this link by cre­at­ing a tool known as Revo­lu­tion2 for re­cruit­ing, or­ga­niz­ing and mo­bi­liz­ing po­lit­i­cal vol­un­teers.

His soft­ware al­lows peo­ple to de- cide where, how and how of­ten they want to vol­un­teer for a can­di­date. Some might choose to make phone calls to other po­ten­tial sup­port­ers in their neigh­bor­hood, while oth­ers may opt to knock on doors.

“We found a way to take an on­line [so­cial] net­work off­line and track the im­pact of ev­ery vol­un­teer,” said Mr. Clark, who com­pares Revo­lu­tion2 and its bar codes to the “UPS pack­age-track­ing sys­tem.”

“Our tech­nol­ogy is def­i­nitely way be­yond any other that’s out there. We’ve spent in the mil­lions of dol­lars to achieve it,” he said.

Revo­lu­tion2 is poised to be­come a full-fledged com­mer­cial en­ter­prise, fol­low­ing suc­cess­ful test runs for Mr. Per­due and Rep. Melvin Everson, Ge­or­gia Repub­li­can, in 2006 and for Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Repub­li­can, in 2004.

Nick Ayers, cam­paign man­ager for Mr. Per­due, hailed the ef­forts of WeTheCi­ti­zens.

“They al­lowed us to grow our vol­un­teer base in a way we could not have imag­ined,” said Mr. Ayers, now ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Repub­li­can Gov­er­nors As­so­ci­a­tion.

“Cam­paign ac­tivists want to know who is do­ing the work and who is not do­ing the work.” WeTheCi­ti­zens’ tech­nol­ogy al­lows closer mon­i­tor­ing, he said, and “en­cour­ages peo­ple to work harder.”

WeTheCi­ti­zens says vol­un­teers us­ing Revo­lu­tion2 carry bar-coded sheets on which they check off where a po­ten­tial voter stands on a ma­jor is­sue, such as the war in Iraq or il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion. They also record whether that per­son would al­low a sign for a par­tic­u­lar can­di­date to be posted in his yard or if he would cam­paign for the can­di­date.

The data are elec­tron­i­cally com­piled, help­ing can­di­dates know if and where pub­lic ap­pear­ances might be ben­e­fi­cial and what po­si­tions to take. Such in­for­ma­tion even al­lows cam­paigns to con­duct real straw polls, Mr. Clark said.

Both he and Mr. Erick­son agreed that Howard Dean’s doomed pres­i­den­tial cam­paign in 2004 showed the fu­til­ity of hav­ing built “large on­line net­works, but not hav­ing the mo­bi­liza­tion re­quired to get things done.”

“At the end of the day, Howard Dean got de­stroyed in Iowa,” Mr. Erick­son said, be­cause sup­posed sup­port­ers seemed more in­ter­ested in con­vers­ing on­line than work­ing for their can­di­date. The lessons learned ap­par­ently con­trib­uted to the strides the DNC has made.

Cur­rently, Mr. Clark is mar­ket­ing soft­ware for the 2008 pres­i­den­tial race. “We’re talk­ing to ma­jor [pres­i­den­tial] can­di­dates on both sides,” he said, al­though he de­clined to name names.

He says he thinks the “key” to a suc­cess­ful cam­paign in 2008 lies in “build­ing a large team of vol­un­teers and con­nect­ing them to po­ten­tial vot­ers” in their own com­mu­ni­ties.

Re­searchers Amy Baskerville and John Sopko con­trib­uted to this re­port.

YouTube.com

Cut­ting-edge mock­ery: A clip of Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date John Ed­wards fix­ing his hair has gar­nered more than 600,000 views on YouTube.

YouTube.com

When a video from his 1994 bid for Se­nate un­ex­pect­edly resur­faced on YouTube with po­si­tions he had since re­pu­di­ated, Mitt Rom­ney used his Web site to ex­plain the change.

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