Political parties tap IT for election advantage

It could be the only issue that Democrats and Republicans can agree on before Tuesday’s midterm elections. IT helps target specific voters.

The Democratic National Committee has spent US$8 million since the 2004 presidential election to overhaul its core voter database as part of an effort to erase data-quality problems.

The Republican National Committee, acknowledged by both parties to have better exploited IT in recent elections, has expanded its use of a data mining and modeling technique called microtargeting, which adds consumer data to voter files to better identify potential voters.

Ben Self, the DNC’s director of technology, said the Democratic Party’s data quality problems in 2004 included a database with a list of Colorado voters that contained more names than the total population of the state. Also, some Florida voters were listed in the database as living in the city “Fort” and the state “Lauderdale,” Self noted.

“We had some significant problems in 2004 that required us to start [rebuilding] technologically from ground zero,” he said. “We have spent a significant portion of our time revamping the entire national database from the ground up.”

As it began anew, the DNC was able to take advantage of emerging technologies, such as a data warehouse appliance from Netezza Corp. in Framingham, Mass., Self said. The committee replaced a MySQL open-source database with a dedicated device that includes high-performance hardware with database, storage and other software, he said.

The Netezza appliance allows the DNC to process the 200 million files — one for each voter — and 900 fields for each file 20 times faster than it could in the past, Self said. Since the overhaul, the DNC has increased the number of high-quality phone numbers in its database by 20 percent, he said.

The committee has also installed data modeling tools from SPSS Inc., data quality tools from Firstlogic Inc. (acquired by Business Objects SA earlier this year), and extract, transform and load tools from Sunopsis SA, which was acquired by Oracle Corp. last month.

The Republicans’ expertise in microtargeting — appending consumer-based information to the demographic and voting history in a voter database — was important in the 2004 election and will be even more crucial in Tuesday’s elections if the outcomes are as close as expected, said Mike Connell, president, chief political strategist and CEO of Business Objects SA Inc. in Richfield, Ohio.

Connell worked with the Bush/Cheney campaign on Internet strategy in 2000 and 2004, and his company works for the RNC. In Michigan, for example, Republican volunteers are canvassing door to door in Detroit for the first time since 1962 because microtargeting has identified 44,000 traditional Democratic voters who are likely to side with Republicans on social issues, said Saul Anuzis, chairman of the Michigan Republican Party.

Before the use of microtargeting, the party would not campaign in areas of the state known to be made up of less than 50 percent Republican voters, he said. “Now, we literally target household by household,” he said. “Michigan is a swing state, and [we] cannot afford not to talk to every single potential voter in the state.”

The RNC did not immediately respond to an interview request.

For its part, the DNC has launched a microtargeting pilot effort in six states using its new IT equipment, Self said. He declined to identify the states but said, “The changes we have made are making a direct impact.”

Separately, Harold Ickes, deputy White House chief of staff for former President Bill Clinton, set up his own operation to maintain Democratic voter data. The Ickes organization has been providing data to America Votes, a Washington-based coalition of interest groups, for use in microtargeting efforts in Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wyoming and Colorado that are independent of the DNC.

Daniel Castleman, a political data analyst at America Votes, said his organization — which uses development and modeling tools from SPSS — has been able to “surgically target” voters, especially in rural areas, where Democrats have traditionally had little success.

Julie Barko Germany, deputy director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University in Washington, called the midterm elections a test case for microtargeting. If it works, she added, its use will likely spread in 2008.

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