High-tech tools for campaigners.
The returns were in, but the election wasn't over. The race was hard fought, and the votes were close--the Republican candidate had triumphed by a slim margin. But the absentee ballots hadn't been tallied, and they turned the tide. The Democrat was the victor.
Political fiction? It happened in a recent state Senate race in southern California. Victory hinged on identifying the absentee voters who were likely to vote for the Democratic candidate. The success reflected good old-fashioned campaigning at its best, but with a sophisticated twist: A computerized campaign system was used to target this specific voter group.
According to legislators, legislative staff and vendors, computerized campaign systems are "hot." These very sophisticated and relatively inexpensive systems are being used to help target voters and get the most out of campaign resources.
Not long ago, only national and large state party organizations could afford computer technology. The costs associated with collecting and entering data, developing or buying programs and purchasing the large mainframe computer needed to run them--or buying time on one--were so high only large organizations could manage them. Today, however, a system as powerful as the mainframes of a decade ago can be purchased for less than $30,000. The continuing revolution in computer hardware and software technology has provided amazing capabilities at prices unimaginable when the first IBM PC was introduced just 10 years ago. In addition, data such as voter history that would have been prohibitively expensive to collect 10 years ago can now be purchased inexpensively in computerized form from governmental bodies or private firms. These developments have made it possible for almost anyone to take advantage of sophisticated campaign targeting and direct marketing techniques.
How is this new technology being used in campaigns? Envision this scenario: Individually addressed letters appear the week before election day, one for each registered voter in a household--Granddad, Mom, Dad and their 19-year-old daughter. The letters are from the same candidate in the Senate race, but they are all different. The candidate seems to know each of them personally, yet none of them has ever met her.
Granddad's letter speaks of the candidate's support for special tax breaks and services for retired people. Dad's letter addresses tax credits for families providing caregiving services for the elderly, higher education tuition tax credits and the need to reduce burdensome regulations on small businesses. Mom's mentions the fact that she and the candidate share common experiences as working women who have children in the public schools, detailing the candidate's plans to improve the school system, provide government-sponsored before-and after-school activities, and strengthen enforcement of anti-discrimination and harassment provisions in the workplace. The daughter's letter thanks her for registering to vote and refers to the candidate's pro-choice stance on abortion and her support for the state's university system, which, she notes, the daughter attends.
The four voters wonder how the candidate knows so much about their concerns. Perhaps she knows some of their acquaintances, business associates or friends. However she knows, she obviously cares.
Vendors selling these systems are quick to note that these imaginary voters might be quite disappointed if they knew it wasn't the candidate but a computer program that "knows" so much about them. Using information about their party registration, previous voting history, polling data, demographic characteristics and their affiliation with different associations and institutions, the program produced a tailored letter composed entirely of previously crafted paragraphs detailing the candidate's positions on various issues. The letters went out on pre-printed stock containing the candidate's signature in blue "ink." An addressed envelope followed each letter out of the printer and volunteers had only to stuff and stamp the envelopes and drop them in the mailbox.
Computers are ubiquitous in campaigns. Almost all candidates use them to some extent to produce letters, flyers, newsletters and press releases, do merge mails, track contributions and keep schedules. Automated campaign systems are used primarily for performing sophisticated analysis to target specific constituent groups. They pay off in well-financed statewide campaigns and in large legislative and city and county races. At the heart of the systems are databases containing information about constituents and election returns.
In its simplest form the information about constituents is a list of registered voters with names, ages, addresses, party affiliation and voting history. In more complex forms the databases contain information about everyone living within the district, including histories of contributions to campaigns, membership in organizations ranging from the NRA to the Sierra Club, religious affiliation, occupation, polling data, property assessment information, race, school attendance and even biographical information. The constituent information is linked to election return data of varying complexity to provide a comprehensive view of the political context of a district. This more complex database is known as "enhanced voter data." The databases are often exensive part of the system to develop and maitain.
The collection and use of the personal information used in creating enhanced voter data raise the same concerns about privacy that have brought scrutiny to the direct marketing business. Some believe that using the sophisticated tool in campaigning makes it an unquestionable invasion of privacy. Critics point out that the direct marketing industry has come under fire for using personal information such as a potential customer's religious affiliation to coax him to buy a product. Similarly, privacy is invaded when personal political information is used to send voters just the message they want to hear or to solicit contributions. Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services Inc., admits that "there is an ongoing debate within the industry over enhanced voter data that centers on the issue of personal privacy."
To categorize and target prospective voters is a powerful technique. The software that drives these systems can perform sophisticated analysis of databases to help find those select voters most likely to swing an election. That targeting can improve the efficiency of more traditional campaign methods. The systems can also be used to:
* Automatically dial numbers in phone banks.
* Produce maps and detailed constituent reports for door-to-door campaigning.
* Help determine the most effect use of various media.
* Generate specialized issue reports and campaign materials tailored to the concerns of distinct constituent groups within the district.
* Prepare specialized issue mailings.
* Generate lists of possible supporters who are not yet registered to vote.
* Track absentee voter "turnout" efforts.
Some campaign systems take advantage of developments like the new census data and base maps for displaying them, CD-ROMs for distributing voter data, bar-coded form for polling and tracking absentee ballots, and computer-based bulleting boards and electronic mail systems for communicating with constituents during campaigns.
Almost all states are using computeized redistricting systems that display current plans as maps on computer screens. The systems use the census population data and the geographic base map data provided by TIGER (Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing) files to generate plans. Most states incorpoate additional data, typically election history data, into their systems as well. Most states also align the boundaries of their election districts to conform to the TIGER geography, making political geography match census geography. This makes the census information much more valuable in automated campaign systems. More complete information will be available on all of the residents of a voting district since the information is at a block level. Complete information regarding race, sex, age, head of household and home ownership is all available from the census data.
Another upshot of the systems developed for redistricting is that many legislators immediately saw the advantage of being able to display information, within seconds, in graphic form instead of in pages of numbers. At least one vendor of voter data, Aristotle Industries, is now including a block-level census key on each voter record that identifies the voter's census block. This permits census information and geography to be readily matched with the voter files.
The use of compact disks (CDs) to distribute large date sets of voter information is another new development. The CDs contain not only the information on millions of potential voters but also programs that allow users to search the lists and select groups of voters by various criteria. CDs can greatly simplify loading large amounts of data onto a computer system.
Bar codes like the ones used on grocery items are another form of computer technology that is being put to some intriguing uses. Each voter in the database is assigned a unique bar code number. Thus, bar coding of survey forms makes it possible to identify the voters' individual responses and tie them to demographic and political data for more complex analyses. Another use of bar codes is to track absentee ballots. Bar codes are placed on absentee ballot requests that are distributed to targeted individuals by the campaign's volunteers. Campaign workers obtain from the county weekly summary tapes of ballot requests and compare them with the ballots returned. They can then focus their efforts on getting people who haven't done so return ballots. This permits campaign staff to use their time much more effectively.
Some candidates are using electronic bulletin boards and electronic mail systems to improve the efficiency of more traditional methods of campaigning--communications and outreach. E-mail and bulletin boards can be used to do polling, disseminate information and communicate directly with individual voters. They are used to leave messages for the candidates; conduct ongoing issue forums, where callers leave questions, comments and suggestions about a particular subject; post appearance schedules; and exchange detailed messages with both voters and campaign staff.
The use of automated campaign systems will continue to grow as the costs of hardware and enhanced voter date drop. John Phillips, president of Aristotle Industries, estimates that through most of the 1980s, less than 5 percent of state legislative campaigns used some form of automated campaign system. Within the next two years he expects this figure to reach 50 percent.
Redistricting and term limitation measures are introducing greater uncertainty into the political scene and are stimulating demand for computer systems. Redistricting can change the political fortunes of incumbents overnight. They may be forced to run in a district with a radically different constituency than they had before. Automated campaign systems can help shorten the time required to evaluate and understand the political environment of the new district. Many potential challengers see incumbents as particularly vulnerable if they must run in a different district. They are more likely to use these systems to make a serious challenge to the incumbent.
Term limitation measures are creating additional pressures on incumbents who want to remain in political service. If they plan to run for a higher office when their legislative term is over, they will need to start developing a broader group of supporters when they are first elected to the legislature. Automated campaign systems will become increasingly important in this environment as officeholders and candidates try to increase their visibility among potential voters and expand their base of support.
Who's using the systems now? According to vendors, sales are booming. Mike Shulem, president of Data+Imagination Inc., says 99 percent of his company's sales are to incumbents. Shulem notes that his customers "run like they are one vote behind--every single vote counts." Interestingly, 99.6 percent of his clients have been successful. He adds that they also understand the liabilities of being an incumbent these days. They use every conceivable means--media, mail, phone banks, computers, door-to-door, personal appearances--to help them win. Computers are just another tool to help them campaign more effectively.
John Phillips sees three notable developments. More elected officials are familiar with computers, they are purchasing and using the systems personally, and they have a "voracious appetite" for information products. He says his clients believe that if you know more about constituents, you can serve them better. He expects to see even more rapid growth in the sales of these products as lawmakers familiar with computer technology assume leadership positions in legislatures. Local and county-level campaign groups are buying systems,too, he says.
Phillips says he has also seen a recent upswing in special interest and PAC groups purchasing his firm's systems or enhanced voter data to help them promote their causes. The larger interest groups have been using similar technology for yeas. Now, however, even relatively small interest groups can begin to take advantage of its efficiencies. As a result, we can expect to see more campaigns with highly targeted issues.
Both Phillips and Shulem say that elections have been turned around by candidates using computerized campaign systems. They are quick to note, however, that these campaigns exploited all of the more traditional methods to their fullest. The systems only help campaigns work a little smarter and more efficiently; however, this edge may be enough to make the difference.
Steve Graff NCSL's specialist on legislative information technology.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||computerized campaign systems|
|Date:||May 1, 1992|
|Previous Article:||The sky-high cost of campaigns.|
|Next Article:||Can workers' comp work?|