- The Washington Times - Monday, June 9, 2003

When the Democratic nominee for president in 2004 courts Iowa voters, he will have at his disposal the most extensive and detailed profiles of voters ever assembled in the state’s history.

The Iowa Democratic Party’s massive computer database of 1.8 million voters is so detailed that it allows candidates to target people based on their specific voting history and pet issues, such as abortion or the environment.

“It revolutionizes grassr-oots campaigning,” said Mark Daley, spokesman for the state party.

Ronald A. Faucheux, editor of Campaigns & Elections Magazine, said while other state parties — including the Republican parties in Georgia and Colorado — are developing similar databases, he’s not aware of any as advanced as Iowa’s.

The foundation of Iowa’s database is the basic voter rolls compiled by the Secretary of State’s office. The additional — and most valuable — information was compiled through interviews with mostly independent voters conducted by more than 160 staffers around the state during the past three years.

The canvassers went door-to-door interviewing people and tapping the information into specially-programmed Palm Pilots. Each night, the information was uploaded from the Palm Pilots to a central database available to anyone with a password and access to the Internet.

Still in its early stages, the database proved crucial in last November’s election, Mr. Daley said.

In a year when Republicans dominated nationally, Democrats won seven of Iowa’s eight statewide elections.

“For the first time in Iowa history, a Democratic governor and a Democratic senator were elected on the same day,” Mr. Daley said. “We were able to reach all these people with the click of a button.”

So successful was the effort in the 2002 election that state Democratic parties across the country have begun compiling similar databases. And last month, Iowa Democrats came to Washington to discuss their strategy with national party leaders.

Realizing its value, six of the top contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination — Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and Florida Sen. Bob Graham — have shelled out $65,000 each for access to the database.

In addition to basic information such as a voter’s mailing address, phone numbers and e-mail addresses, the database also includes added information such as a person’s voting history and specific information about issues of importance to the voter.

Purchasers not only pay a lump-sum for access, they also must continuously update the database with any new information they learn along the way.

“That’s what makes the database so valuable,” Mr. Daley said.

These specifics, called “activist codes,” allow candidates to target specific people with mailings or e-mails.

If a candidate takes a stand on, for instance, protecting a river in Iowa, he can write a detailed letter outlining his position and send it only to environmentalists at just a fraction of the cost of a mass mailing. Incidentally, it also prevents the politician from annoying voters who don’t care about a specific topic.

“It’s about knowing as much as we can about the voter,” said Mark Sullivan, the Democratic strategist credited as one of the primary developers of Iowa’s database. “We’re starting to use marketing tools that corporations have used for years.”

The database has been particularly effective for capturing Democratic-leaning voters who often skip elections — the very swing voters who often determine the outcome of an election.

Using the database, Democrats went to the homes of these voters and signed them up for absentee ballots. They then monitored the voter to make sure he filled out his ballot and sent it in.

If he didn’t, Mr. Daley said, the party sent “ballot-chasers” back to his house until the ballot was put into the mail.

It was just such voters in Iowa who determined the outcome of the 2000 presidential race in their state.

Republican George W. Bush won 7,000 votes more than Democrat Al Gore on the day of the election. But, Mr. Gore won Iowa by 4,000 votes after the absentee ballots were counted.

Mr. Faucheux compared the computer program to the old ward and precinct system where bosses “knew everyone, remembered what favors everybody owed and got everybody out to the polls.”

“It’s old-fashioned grass-roots technique using new technology,” he said.

Mr. Sullivan said: “It’s still ultimately about personal contact. It’s about someone knocking on your door and feeling obligated to go vote.”

“It’s not enough to spend a gazillion dollars sending junk mail to people who don’t want it,” he said. “It’s not enough to blast their living rooms with TV ads. We have to be more personal.”

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