- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 6, 2007

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 voter-registry 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 voter-registry 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 microtargeting 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 decide 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.

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