You have a new book, One Party Country: The Republican Plan For Dominance in the 21st Century, which you wrote with your fellow journalist from the Los Angeles Times, Peter Wallsten. It looks at an array of Republican strategies towards achieving a one-party America. We want to focus in this BuzzFlash interview on the technology that the Republican Party has mastered. In particular, can you explain what microtargeting is?
Tom Hamburger: Microtargeting is a technique used in commercial marketing as well as political campaigns to identify very narrow niches of interest. It’s also known as niche marketing. It refers to the careful, very specific targeting of individuals -- in this case, voters -- by special interests, buying habits, and demographics. The Republican Party has made exceptionally good use of this technique, employing it very aggressively in 2004 in battleground states like Ohio and New Mexico. We make the case that microtargeting and the use of very sophisticated databases explains the Republican edge in those states, and thus even explains the results of the 2004 election.
BuzzFlash: You give some very interesting examples in One Party Country. You actually introduce us to some people who have been microtargeted. Maybe you could talk a little about them -- and the fact that, for the GOP, this is seen as an investment in the future. There’s an African-American woman from suburban Ohio.
Tom Hamburger: Felicia Hill lives outside of Dayton, and she’s married to a UAW union auto worker. She's a registered Democrat who has traditionally voted for Democratic presidential candidates. In the rule book by which politics is traditionally played, she would not be a target for Republican Party mobilization. She simply wouldn’t be on the list of people who were likely to vote Republican. But, thanks to this database, which the Republicans call Voter Vault, the Republican party activists in Ohio had some detailed information about Felicia Hill. Though she was in a Democratic precinct, had voted in Democratic primaries in the past, and was an African-American woman married to an auto worker, they knew she also sends her children to private schools. She’s a member of a conservative Evangelical church. She is a member of a golf club and subscribes to golfing magazines.
These accumulated interests were known to Republicans who were actively engaged in an African-American outreach effort in Ohio in 2004. And so Felicia Hill, for the first time during this campaign, found herself the recipient of a multitude of Republican Party entreaties, many of them personal telephone calls inviting her to specific events. Some were mailers that appealed to her special interests. Because she sends her kids to private schools, for example, she is interested in school vouchers -- and that’s an issue the Republicans are talking a lot about, the Democrats not so much. She told us she found herself subtly feeling for the first time that the Republican Party was a place where she could feel at home.
Now, ultimately, she went to the ballot box in 2004 and cast her vote for John Kerry. But Republicans viewed this outreach to Felicia Hill and others like her in Ohio and other states as a victory nonetheless, because she is now open to the Republican Party and to Republican Party ideas.
There are a couple of lessons in this for Democrats and for those who are interested in how things are evolving politically. One of them is to look at how this Republican Party investment over the preceding decade might reap success in the long term. They’re in this for the long haul. If you didn’t get Felicia Hill in 2004 -- well, maybe in 2006 or maybe in 2008. And they now have a way to reach her.
Both parties can identify voters by precinct, address, party affiliation and, often, their views on hot-button issues. Democrats also use marketing data, but Voter Vault includes far more information culled from marketing sources -- including retailers, magazine subscription services, even auto dealers -- giving Republicans a high-tech edge in the kind of grass-roots politics that has long been the touchstone of Democratic activists.